Time to plan and time to act again — but this time it’s different (Part 2)

“The only certainty in a pandemic is uncertainty”

While there is much that has improved in our understanding and management of COVID-19, there remains a significant concern about how we will deal with and get through this second surge of the pandemic. In some respects, there was more certainty during the first surge than there is in the second. We were certain that all but the most essential healthcare services were to cease. We were certain that all of our time was to be spent addressing the immediate crisis. We were certain about what we were allowed to do, who, how and where we were allowed to meet others, how our income was going to be safeguarded. We were certain that we did not know enough about this disease, but neither did anyone else. We were certain that our resource-capacity for testing, contact tracing, staff protection, PPE, critical care services were going to be stretched to the limit. We were certain that we were all in it together.

Those certainties have all but disappeared, and we have been left in dark territory without a light. Despite all of the lessons we should have learned in the first surge, there remain many we have failed to learn from, and there remain new hurdles for us to overcome. The healthcare-specific challenges are compounded by the fact that this surge will occur during the winter at a time when respiratory illness, hospital workload and mental health stressors are at their greatest.

Uncertainty in non-COVID-19 services

There is a moral and practical need to maintain non-COVID-19 work alongside surge-related activity. While all but genuine emergency work was postponed in the first surge, this is no longer feasible. There is now therefore a massive backlog of elective work the NHS has committed to both maintaining that elective clinical work and ensuring it continues to deliver healthcare services for all needs. This will pose new challenges which may be at least be equal or even greater than the challenges of the first surge. There is no new capacity in the NHS, but we will undoubtedly need to expand ICUs again, this time while protecting peri-operative pathways. The Anaesthesia-ICM hub has published guidance on how this may be achieved and in it emphasises the important of co-ordinated planning and collaboration between anaesthesia, surgery and critical care. There is likely to be a need for increased liaison and mutual aid not only involving critical care but also elective surgery. This may be between hospitals, regionally or nationally. To achieve this, departments of anaesthesia need to engage with their critical care colleagues if they are separate and it is likely that regional anaesthetic networks, similar to existing critical care networks, will need to be established. The Nightingale facilities (they lack the breadth of structures and services to be called hospitals) remain an important part of the response but only if the rest of the NHS is failing. Critically, Nightingale facilities provide space but not staffed space. So, if opened they will need to be staffed by the same staff who currently work in the very hospitals the Nightingales are designed to decompress. Their use will be a sure signal that the normal NHS is overwhelmed and will likely only occur when quality of care is already decreasing. We must hope they lie idle.

Maintenance of hospital safety

There is the challenge of keeping hospitals, their staff and patients safe from COVID-19. During the first surge hospitals were effectively closed except for COVID-19 patients and true emergency care. The country was in lockdown, schools, universities, pubs and restaurants were closed and social mixing was non-existent. The mantra was ‘protect the NHS’. Yet despite this the rate of infection in hospitals was three- of four-fold higher than in their communities – in one hospital almost half of healthcare workers became infected in a 3-week period. Hospitals such as Weston General and Hillingdon Hospitals had to close temporarily because of COVID-19 outbreaks. In the second surge, ‘the NHS is open’, elective care will continue while in the community town centres, schools and pubs are open and social contact is much increased, and adherence to guidelines has dropped as confidence in these has fallen. The number of staff off work due to illness or precautionary self-isolation as family members are in contact with others is already noticeable and impacting on delivery of care. To worsen matters, barriers such as self-isolation for 14 days before elective admission to hospital and use of high level PPE in elective patients have been removed so that patients may be admitted after no more than 3 days self-isolation (which, based on viral dynamics provides little if any barrier) and for these patients  transmission-based precautions such as increased levels of PPE or fallow theatre periods are currently not recommendedWard-based outbreaks can fuel nosocomial infection and currently approximately 10% of patients in hospital with COVID-19 acquired it there, with rates much higher in some locations. These patients are set for a difficult course: almost one in four surgical and medical patients who develop COVID-19 in hospital will die: far higher than if acquired in the community. Hospital outbreaks lead to patient and staff harm and ward closures, but also removal from work of large numbers of staff making it difficult to run services: we must avoid them at all costs. Hospitals need to monitor local and in-hospital infection rates to determine if and when the barriers that have been lowered need once more to be raised. The flux of patient risk pathways, be it red/amber/green; high/medium/low risk; COVID-free/COVID-positive or any other permutation that varies both temporally or spatially, has thrown healthcare workers into a constant state of confusion. Consistent, well-designed pathways for patients should be agreed upon and not be updated reactively, but rather planned proactively. Last but not least, hospital staff need to improve their behaviour to reduce transmission within hospitals. Social distancing, adhering to the designated numbers of people in any room, strict and proper wearing of facemasks and high infection control standards are essential. Despite weariness and the need to relax and decompress, it is not acceptable for the staff coffee room, doctors mess or departmental offices to be transmission hubs for the virus. 

Staff wellbeing

Mental health problems have increased across society during the pandemic. Hospital staff are significantly affected and it is likely that major changes in healthcare worker support will be needed to address the psychological harm already caused. The jump from a traumatic first surge, to the non-COVID-19 recovery, followed once again by a COVID-19 surge has left healthcare professionals fatigued and verging on burnout. Data suggest that more than half of all frontline healthcare workers are suffering either anxiety, depression or PTSD. This psychological burden will be carried forward to this second surge, leaving even greater uncertainty about the wellbeing of the very individuals on whom our healthcare service is dependent. Further, shielding of at-risk individuals is no longer required, and so healthcare workers with higher personal risks may have a significant increase in their absolute risk. Those with the power to do so must act, and we need to look after ourselves and our colleagues, actively managing our own mental health and workload, staying alert for signs in others and supporting those who are struggling. The Association of Anaesthetists and Intensive Care Society amongst others have provided excellent resources and these should be used alongside professional support. 

The world around us

Our lack of confidence in predicting the world around us has cast a further shadow on this second surge. Social restrictions change day to day, region to region, and country to country. Financial stabilityjob security, and government support have all become less predictable for many  families. Travel restrictions have meant that a large proportion of the healthcare workforce who have settled in the UK are unable to visit family members abroad. Political disquiet, both in the UK and globally, add to the ongoing state of flux. Leadership that provides long-term strategies and vision appear to be in short supply, given the predictability of many of our current challenges. And of course, there remain questions regarding the role of a potential vaccine on our ability to get through the pandemic. 


We are headed into the darkness of a long winter in which every aspect our lives will be affected. This winter is predicted to be one of the most challenging we are likely to face. However, the darkness and the surge will pass. We have always found ways of coming together and finding strength in adversity, and the strength of our healthcare workforce, both as individuals and as a community, will overcome the challenges ahead.

The first surge passed and so will this one.

Tim Cook and Kariem El-Boghdadly

Time to plan and time to act again — but this time it’s different (Part 1)

The second surge is upon us and we need to act, but as we do it is also worth reflecting on what we have learnt in the last 8 months. It can reassure us that we have done this before, that we know how to respond, to reflect on how much we know now compared to March and how much care for patients with COVID-19 and their outcomes have improved. There is much to celebrate. At the same time we need to be cautious to avoid complacency, to acknowledge the harm done to many by the first surge and to understand how the response and challenges will differ this time. Here we focus on positive reflection, in part two we will consider the challenges.

In March we wrote a blog highlighting the potential impact of the coming SARS-CoV-2 infection and the need to actively prepare for an influx of ill and critically ill patients. What has happened since is, as they say, ‘history’ and will remain so for decades to come.

Casting our minds back to March, it is difficult to remember quite what turmoil we were in. One of us works in a central London teaching hospital, which like many was intensely busy. The other, who was shielded from frontline work for several months, works in a district general hospital in the south west where the pandemic was considerably less severe, yet hospital services were still restructured, stretched and pressurised. In both hospitals critical care units were expanded, staff retrained and redeployed and the NHS came together as one to meet the coming challenge. During this period what both of us remember most clearly is uncertainty and fear. That fear was, in part, borne of the uncertainty – relating to personal, colleague and family safety, the unmanageable estimates of clinical activity, concerns over our ability to cope with the rigours of work and of what would follow. 

It is important to remember and acknowledge those fears. Also, to remember the acute physical and emotional exhaustion most experienced, due to increased duration, moral burden and acuity of work, compounded by information overload as we planned for and learnt daily about the pandemic response. For many, the impact of spring 2020 will be with them forever, through family loss, moral injury or unexpected and unwelcome experiences that have left shadows that will not lift. At home, the lockdown was unfamiliar, unwelcome and inexorable. For the fortunate, the shadows did pass and summer gave some respite: there was a rather brief period of release from lockdowns and overwhelming work, and perhaps some optimism and time to rest.

It is now clear that we are amid a significant second surge. Much of the country is in some form of local lockdown. We can only hope the government will not demur again over the implementation of significant and effective rules to control community viral transmission and regain control, but popular and professional confidence is not high. A tiered system of local lockdown is to be welcomed, but why it has been created seemingly on the hoof in the midst of an exponential rise in cases, admissions and deaths, rather than planned and announced in the summer months is difficult to fathom. Many are concerned these measures will not be enough and tougher ones will soon follow.

Lessons learnt in the first surge

Despite these many concerns, there are also many reasons to be positive.

We are better prepared 

Our preparation in terms of knowledge of the virus and how to respond to it is immeasurably advanced from 8 months ago. Hospital infrastructure is such that separation of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 pathways should not need to be hastily constructed, oxygen supplies are established and should not be at risk of exhaustion. The stress of shortages of PPE and drugs should not be repeated. The plans for expansion of critical care services are well developed, and skills acquired by many colleagues in the spring will have been retained and can be rapidly redeployed.

We are more agile

In a short time, we have transformed the way we work and communicate. Video conferencing, virtual patient consultations and working from home have transitioned from ‘not possible’, through ‘possible’ to ‘essential’ and now become embedded in everyday medical life. Lines of communication between frontline clinicians and senior management have become necessarily more open and we have learnt the importance and value of direct contact with colleagues in business modelling, estates and housekeeping, to mention only a few. Clinical networks, most particularly for critical care, have been reinvigorated and have become central to planning for and responding to challenges on a regional or national level, rather than as single hospitals. These new, established ways of working provide an opportunity for more inclusive but leaner and more agile communication and decision-making. 

We are treating COVID-19 more effectively

Early strategies of fluid restriction, avoidance of non-invasive ventilation, early tracheal intubation and high levels of PEEP were, in retrospect, not optimal. These have been replaced by fluid restoration to improve ventilation-perfusion mismatch, improve gas exchange and reduce risk of acute kidney injury, pragmatic use of non-invasive ventilation and high-flow nasal oxygen, prone positioning (both awake and once intubated), timely tracheal intubation and enhanced anticoagulation strategies. 

Mortality in our hospitals has reduced and over 3 months ICU mortality  fell from 60% to 42% globally and in the UK from 44% to 34%. We have benefitted from pragmatic, rapidly deployed and extensively adopted research, much of which has centred on the UK including the RECOVERYREMAP-CAP and genomicc studies. We now know that dexamethasone saves lives once patients require oxygen and that remdesivir may shorten illness in milder hospitalised cases but does not save lives. Importantly we also know that the antiviral combination lopinavir with ritonavir has no effect, that hydroxychloroquine is an ineffective treatment and that in combination with azithromycin it is likely harmful. This important knowledge enables clinicians to focus on what does work and to continue with research to determine the role, if any, of treatments such as convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies such as tocilizumab, the cocktail produced by Regeneron and other small molecules. The importance of these speedily conducted, high quality, large scale randomised controlled trials cannot be overstated and should not be underestimated. These studies have provided clear and definitive answers to what we should and should not do and have been the only brake to scientific misinformation arising from small, poorly conducted or even occasionally fraudulent research. In the aftermath of the pandemic, one of the key actions must surely be to re-examine how research is undertaken in the UK – to break down the excessive regulatory barriers and re-enable democratic involvement in large scale clinical studies without the current bloated burdens to patients, clinicians and researchers. 

We are better protected

In the early stages of the pandemic, uncertainly regarding the selection of appropriate PPE and concerns over shortages were a major concern. Frequent changes in guidance from public health bodies and poor communication increased anxiety and decreased confidence. At its heart, PPE strategy is simple – provided you know which mode of transmission you wish PPE precautions to protect against, the choice of PPE is rather simple. However, much doubt has arisen because of a lack of clarity over which modes of transmission should be protected against. The mainstream advice was that SARS-CoV-2 transmission in healthcare settings is via droplet and contact transmission, except during the conduct of a select group of interventions –aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs). However, a wealth of data shows that coughing and sneezing, as well as loud talking and singing, create aerosols. Patient-facing healthcare workers have an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection and harm or death. Amongst healthcare workers, there is an association between those who perform tracheal intubation and subsequent COVID-19 symptoms, but amongst anaesthetists and intensivists as a group, there is a relatively reduced risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 or death from COVID-19. There is emerging evidence that some AGPs may not be aerosol generating, including airway management during tracheal intubation and extubation and use of non-invasive ventilation and high-flow nasal oxygen. Whether the safety of anaesthetists and intensivists (and those they work with) is due to higher level PPE, safer infection control behaviour, diminished viral secretion at the peak of illness or because AGPs are not AGPs remains an open question. 

Overall therefore we can reflect in many ways on progress, work well done throughout the community, hospitals and by researchers. These are, in a year of gloom, reasons to be optimistic.

Tim Cook and Kariem El-Boghdadly

Science bites back

This month, we were delighted to publish two contrasting articles on aerosolisation during tracheal intubation. The first by Brown et al. was published on the 6th of October, and has since become our fourth most popular paper on social media, ever! They conducted an experiment involving quantitative aerosol measurements during tracheal intubation and extubation in real-time in ultraclean ventilation operating theatres. They found that tracheal intubation produces a barely recordable increase in aerosol, which is at odds with previous retrospective evidence that was used to designate tracheal intubation as an aerosol generating procedure. Remarkably, this was followed only a few days later by a study from Dhillon et al. which seems to suggest the opposite. They found that face-mask ventilation, tracheal tube insertion and cuff inflation generated small particles 30-300 times above background noise that remained suspended in airflows and spread from the patient’s facial region throughout the confines of the operating theatre. This all begs the questions, who was right? We are looking forward to the associated editorial and we hope to bring both groups of authors together to discuss the many complicated issues at play. We are, however, thrilled that we are now beginning to see the science tackle some of the key clinical questions which affect practice as we enter what seems to be the second wave of COVID-19 in Europe. 

Turning attention back to the November issue, aerosol generation and airway management remain key topics. This prospective international multicentre cohort study from El-Boghdadly et al. was first published four months ago and is the first output from the IntubateCOVID registry (Fig. 1). They found that around 1 in 10 healthcare workers involved in tracheal intubation of patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 subsequently reported a COVID-19 outcome. When interpreting these data, it is worth remembering the limited availability of tests for healthcare staff and members of the public alike at the time data were collected. This and many other aspects of the study are discussed in the paper and have been commented on by others in associated correspondence. Kakodkar et al. undertakes some mathematical manipulations to estimate a baseline risk after a COVID-positive aerosol-generating procedure, which is generally reassuring for those treating ‘green’ pathway patients. Crawley and Maguire likewise discuss airway management in the COVID-19 era, oxygenation, videolaryngoscopy, risk to healthcare staff and future directions, considering the findings of El-Boghdadly et al

Figure 1 Symptoms reported in the 184 participants meeting the primary endpoint.

Another risk to healthcare staff is of the future legal implications of decisions taken during the present time.This new review from Coghlan et al. outlines the broad framework within which we can consider the medicolegal and ethical aspects of some of the more readily identified issues experienced during the surge in demand for critical care. In particular: legal aspects of care and the legal and ethical aspects of rationing critical care. The associated editorial from Ferguson and Johnston provides some commentary, and call for us all to move ahead collectively, learning lessons and effecting changes that provide long-term benefit. How frequently does anaphylaxis occur during pregnancy, what are the causative agents and how is it managed? This new population-based multinational European study by McCall et al. finds a similar incidence across five European countries of 1.5 per 100,000 women among almost 4.5 million births. Most reactions happen around the time of birth, and there are wide variations in management strategies. Savic and Lucas argue that although this may seem reassuring at first, there is a risk of underreporting and there is a need not to overlook this important differential when an obstetric patient deteriorates unexpectedly. 

Figure 2 Video calls between ICU patients and their family: data protection issues. GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation; MCA, Mental Capacity Act.

How well do you understand the COVID-19 coagulopathy spectrum? This new editorial from Thachil and Agarwal describes immunothrombosis, localised pulmonary and systemic coagulopathy antithrombotic management, the role of viscoelastic testing, bleeding and future directions in the area. Although outcomes may improve as our understanding of the coagulopathy spectrum increases, how can we better assess the risk to our own health that COVID-19 poses? This new review from Tim Cook is a must read for all, as it brings together all the relevant evidence to remind us that age is the chief risk factor. Furthermore, absolute rather than relative risk is more important and dynamic, particularly in the context of healthcare workers. The paper includes an excellent risk assessment tool, and we encourage organisations to consider the interaction between personal and environmental risk, as well as mitigation measures, rather than just personal risk alone. Finally, Thornton et al. present recommendations for management of the airway and lung isolation for thoracic surgical patients during the pandemic. Their paper has generated much discussion already and we hope its publication has kept healthcare staff safe, at a time where thoracic surgery continued for patients with lung cancer.

Figure 3 Antithrombotic management of COVID‐19 coagulopathy based on D‐dimers and platelet counts.

Elsewhere we have: a narrative review of tracheal tube size in adults undergoing elective surgerya randomised trial of fibrinogen concentrate during scoliosis surgerya randomised controlled trial of intra-operative dexmedetomidine in children; and a randomised trial of intravenous dexamethasone after volar plate surgery. Over in Anaesthesia Reports, we have reports of: extracorporeal carbon dioxide removal in a patient with COVID-19surgery for tracheal obstruction due to a tumouran emergency caesarean section in a patient with pre-eclampsia and multifactorial thrombocytopeniamallet finger in an anaesthetist; and many other interesting cases. Finally, make sure you book your place at #WSMLondon21, as we go virtual! Our new Editor Ed Mariano is speaking about lessons learned from the US opioid epidemic, and speakers at the journal session on Thursday morning include Seema Agarwal and Laura Duggan. 

Mike Charlesworth and Andrew Klein