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Amid COVID-19, What Does “Elective” Mean?

As Sarac et al. note in the latest JBJS fast-tracked article, the phrase “elective procedure” is ambiguous, even though it is supposed to identify procedures that are being postponed to help hospitals cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that operations for “most cancers” and “highly symptomatic patients” should continue, but that leaves much of the ambiguity unresolved. What constitutes an elective procedure in orthopaedics at this unusual time remains unclear.

To help clarify the situation, the authors summarize guidance issued by states and describe the guidelines currently in use for orthopaedic surgery at their institution, The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Here are the state-related data collected by Sarac et al., as of March 24, 2020:

  • 30 states have published guidance regarding discontinuation of elective procedures; 16 of those states provide a definition of “elective” or offer guidance for determining which procedures should continue to be performed.
  • 5 states provide guidelines specifically mentioning orthopaedic surgery; of those, 4 states explicitly permit trauma-related procedures, and 4 states recommend against performing arthroplasty.
  • 10 states provide guidelines permitting the continuation of oncological procedures.

In the Buckeye State, the Ohio Hospital Association asked each hospital and surgery center to cancel procedures that do not meet any of the following criteria:

  • Threat to a patient’s life if procedure is not performed
  • Threat of permanent dysfunction of an extremity or organ system
  • Risk of cancer metastasis or progression of staging
  • Risk of rapid worsening to severe symptoms

Mindful of those criteria, individual surgical and procedural division directors at the authors’ university developed a list of specific procedures that should continue to be performed. Respective department chairs approved the lists, which were then sent to the hospital chief clinical officer for signoff.

The authors tabulate the orthopaedic procedures that continue to be performed at their institution as of March 25, 2020, but they are quick to add that even this list is not without ambiguity. For example, surgery should continue on “select closed fractures that if left untreated for >30 days may lead to loss of function or permanent disability,” but that requires surgeons to judge, in these uncertain and fluid times, which fractures necessitate fixation in the short term.

Sarac et al. emphasize that such lists, however specific they are today, are likely to change as demands on hospitals shift. They suggest that as the pandemic evolves, a further classification of procedures into 2 time-based categories might be helpful: (1) those that need to be performed within 2 weeks and (2) those that need to be performed within 4 weeks. Sarac et al. also remind orthopaedic surgeons to provide patients waiting for surgery that has been postponed with information regarding safe and effective methods of managing their pain.

Prepping for Surgery on Patients with COVID-19

JBJS has already fast-tracked an article by Mi et al. about the best way to manage patients who have a bone fracture as well as COVID-19. The latest fast-tracked COVID-19 article from JBJS comes from Portuguese authors Rodrigues-Pinto et al. It provides an exquisitely detailed protocol for operating room set-ups and staff workflows when treating surgical patients who are COVID-19-positive, with an emphasis on the specifics required for trauma and orthopaedic surgery.

The authors describe a 5-zone operative complex, as shown in the Figure above. Most of the details from Rodrigues-Pinto et al. explain precautionary procedures to be taken in Zones 1 and 2 and Zones 3 and 4, areas preceding and following the operating room.

For Zone 3, the OR itself, the authors recommend a portable HEPA filtration system with a high frequency of air changes to rapidly reduce the viral load within the OR. Another in-the-OR tip for trauma and orthopaedic surgical procedures is to use power tools (such as electrocautery, bone saws, reamers, and drills) sparingly, and to set their power levels as low as possible. That’s because such tools release aerosols, which increase the risk of virus spread. Suction devices to remove smoke and aerosols should also be used during surgical procedures on COVID-19 patients.

What’s Important? Togetherness

At a time when the general public is being encouraged to isolate and maintain physical distance, healthcare professionals are coming together as never before. This unprecedented level and type of collaboration and teamwork is the theme of 2 JBJS fast-track “What’s Important” articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first, Mohamad Halawi, MD and colleagues from Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston say that this extraordinary event calls for physician leadership and unity. The authors encourage the orthopaedic community to “focus on supporting our medical colleagues” and for all healthcare professionals to demonstrate “resilience, vigilance, and common resolve.”

For Boston orthopaedists George S.M. Dyer, MD and Mitchel B Harris, MD “things are changing so quickly around us that every day feels like a week,” and “fear appears to be the new ingredient.” Faced with feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, these authors sought advice from three quarters: a group of military veterans affiliated with their medical school, several orthopaedic surgeons who currently serve in the military, and patients who are police officers and firefighters.

The collective wisdom in their advice boils down to this:

  • Remind yourself why you became a doctor; it’s a privilege to be able to help.
  • Take care of yourselves and of each other.
  • Buddy up and stay close to your teammates.
  • Keep lines of communication open; in times of stress, unfettered communication is essential.
  • Remember that you are capable and resilient.
  • Don’t force yourself into “heroism”; volunteer to support and assist in any way you feel comfortable.

Learnings from Orthopaedists Infected with COVID-19

One serious challenge in responding to COVID-19 is how to better protect healthcare workers and prevent nosocomial infection. A fast-track JBJS Orthopaedic Forum article by Guo et al. provides instructive data about this challenge from 24 orthopaedic surgeons in Wuhan, China who contracted the illness. Orthopaedic surgeons generally don’t work on the front lines of infectious-disease pandemics, but these cases help us understand the overall infection situation of healthcare workers.

Twenty-six orthopaedic surgeons from 8 of 24 investigated hospitals in Wuhan were identified as having COVID-19, and 24 of them completed a self-administered questionnaire. From that information, the authors found that the peak date of onset of orthopaedic surgeons’ infection was 8 days earlier than the peak of the public epidemic, indicating that these surgeons were probably exposed to COVID-19 in the hospitals, rather than in the community. Fifteen surgeons were admitted to the hospital for treatment, and 9 surgeons self-isolated at home or hotels with medicine for at least 2 weeks. All 24 surgeons recovered after treatment.

According to questionnaire responses, the suspected in-hospital sites of exposure were general wards (79.2%), public places in the hospital (20.8%), operating rooms (12.5%), the intensive care unit (4.2%), and the outpatient clinic (4.2%). Three surgeons were exposed during operations on patients who were diagnosed as having COVID-19 several days after the surgical procedures.

This and other findings underscore an already-known but worrisome feature of this disease: many asymptomatic patients with COVID-19 are shedding the virus and unwittingly exposing other people—inside and outside of hospitals—to the risk of infection.

Also worrisome: these 24 orthopaedists infected others in 25% of cases, with a 20.8% transmission rate to family members. The authors therefore recommend that orthopaedic surgeons who work in hospital settings during the COVID-19 pandemic period avoid close contact with family members at home.

Risk Factors for Infection
The authors also conducted a 1:2 matched case-control study to explore possible risk factors for COVID-19 infection. The controls were selected from uninfected orthopaedic surgeons who worked in the same department as the case(s) at each hospital.

Severe fatigue of orthopaedic surgeons during the 2 months before the outbreak was found to be a risk factor for COVID-19 infection. (Fatigue from overwork, less sleep, and mental stress are issues for orthopaedic surgeons under many “normal” circumstances.)

Real-time training in infection-prevention measures was found to have a protective effect against COVID-19, as was wearing respirators or masks all the time. More specifically, not wearing an N95 respirator was found to be a risk factor.

Generally, Guo et al. conclude that orthopaedic surgeons must be highly vigilant to avoid infection with COVID-19. They recommend the following approaches:

  • Work with medical and orthopaedic associations to provide real-time infection-control training and to address any shortages of personal protective equipment.
  • Minimize, postpone, or cancel elective operations. Test patients for COVID-19 before any operation if resources allow. Place face masks on all patients.
  • Wear N95 respirators all the time while in a hospital during the pandemic.
  • If you are exposed to the virus by patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, avoid close contact with family members at home and maintain physical distance in other situations.
  • If possible, avoid long-term overwork and fatigue, which could compromise immunity against COVID-19.

Managing Fractures in Patients with COVID-19

As JBJS Editor-in-Chief Marc Swiontkowski, MD observed in a recent editorial, some musculoskeletal health professionals “have been set aside to some degree” during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Dr. Swiontkowski also emphasized that “emergency/urgent procedures [still] need to be carried out.” Which leads to the question: What are the best medical practices for patients who have both fracture and COVID-19 infection.

To help answer that question, JBJS fast-tracked the publication of an article by Mi et al., which retrospectively reviewed the medical records of 10 patients from 8 hospitals in China who had both a bone fracture and COVID-19 infection.

Presenting Symptoms
All of the fractures were caused by accidents, most of them low-velocity. Flu-like symptoms of patients with a fracture and COVID-19 disease were diverse, as follows:

  • 7 patients (70%) reported fever, cough, and fatigue.
  • 4 (40%) had a sore throat.
  • 5 (50%) presented with dyspnea.
  • 3 (30%) reported dizziness.
  • 1 patient (10%) reported chest pain, nasal congestion, and headache.
  • 1 patient (10%) reported abdominal pain and vomiting.

Imaging and Lab Results
Six of the 10 patients were positive for SARSCoV-2 based on quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) of throat-swab samples. All patients ultimately showed evidence of viral pneumonia on computed tomography (CT) scans, but on admission 3 patients did not exhibit severe symptoms or have obvious evidence of COVID-19 on CT scans, and they therefore underwent a surgical procedure. Fever and fatigue signs were observed in these 3 patients after the operation.

The overall results of laboratory tests were as follows:

  • 6 patients had lymphopenia (<1.0 x 109 cells/L)
  • 9 patients had a high level of C-reactive protein.
  • 9 patients had D-dimer levels that exceeded upper normal limits. The authors suggest that this finding “could represent the special laboratory characteristics of fractures in patients with COVID-19.”

Management
Three of the 10 patients underwent surgery; the others were managed nonoperatively due to their compromised status.

All patients received antiviral therapy and antibacterial therapy, and 9 patients were managed with supplemental oxygen. None of the patients received invasive mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation because of local limitations in medical technology.

Outcomes
Four patients died in the hospital. Among those who died, surgery had been performed on 1. The clinical outcomes for the 6 surviving patients have not yet been determined.

Conclusions
Because 7 of the 10 patients were determined to have developed a nosocomial infection, the authors emphasize the need “to adopt strict infection-control measures…Doctors, nurses, patients, and families should be wearing protective devices such as an N95 respirator and goggles.”

Mi et al. propose the following 3 additional strategies for patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia:

  • Consider nonoperative treatment for older patients with fractures, such as distal radial fractures, in endemic areas.
  • Give patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia more intensive surveillance and treatment.
  • Perform surgery on patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia in a negative-pressure operating room.

Homemade Mask-Making Made Simple

In terms of knowledge, skill, and compassion, the US healthcare workforce is pretty well prepared to respond effectively to the current pandemic. But, as the news media keep emphasizing, many healthcare facilities are not prepared with enough equipment and supplies.

The video below, featuring Raleigh, NC-based foot and ankle surgeon Sarah E. DeWitt, MD, demonstrates step-by-step instructions for making washable, adjustable masks for healthcare workers.

Dr. Dewitt is quick to point out that the two main materials she uses, the paper portion of an air-conditioner filter and 100% cotton (e.g., a pillowcase), will not result in a mask that replicates anything like the virus-filtering N95 mask. But the materials will provide a general barrier, and washing the masks in detergent with bleach will remove nearly 100% of pathogens.

Please feel free to share this video with your friends, family, and colleagues. Thank you, Dr. DeWitt. #jbjstogether

COVID-19 Evidence from Dr. Bhandari

We are now experiencing the third human coronavirus epidemic of the 21st century. COVID-19 has rapidly endangered the health and well-being of all people, especially vulnerable populations. The offending pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus hitherto unknown to the medical field.

Some of what is known about the virus and the disease it causes has been compiled into a fast-track JBJS Orthopaedic Forum article by orthopaedic surgeon and researcher Mohit Bhandari, MD, PhD and his colleagues. Whether you are an orthopaedist, health care professional in another specialty, or a patient, you may find the following excerpts from the article useful.

The authors begin with a quote from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who notes that “we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic.”

Epidemiology
Evidence suggests that asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or mildly symptomatic individuals could be drivers of the community spread of the virus. Early evidence from pre-published studies of 2 cohorts indicate that the virus is spread, on average, 2 to 3 days before symptoms present.

The CDC recently published a report on US patients with COVID-19, using data from February 12, 2020, to March 16, 2020 and found that younger age groups had appreciable risks of both hospitalizations and ICU admissions. This is contrary to data from other countries, where serious cases of COVID-19 occurred predominantly in older people with underlying illnesses.

Infection curves with a steep rise place huge demands on health-care systems and can overwhelm limited health-care resources and force clinicians to make agonizing decisions about which patients receive life-saving treatment and which do not. Hence, all the talk about precautions designed to flatten the curve instead of steepening it.

Vaccine Development
Although there has been impressive and rapid progress toward a vaccine already, a vaccine for widespread use is still likely months or years away, because of the testing, regulatory, and manufacturing hurdles that will need to be cleared.

One possible vaccine-development strategy is a subunit vaccine. Subunit vaccines elicit an immune response against the protein on the surface of a coronavirus to prevent its docking with host receptors. Given the similarities between SARS-CoV (the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003) and SARS-CoV-2, focusing on a subunit vaccine may be the most promising short-term approach.

Treatment
No specific treatment is currently recommended for COVID-19. Similar to many other viral illnesses, the current mainstays of treatment include early recognition and isolation, along with symptomatic and oxygen therapy.

A randomized controlled trial of the antiviral lopinavir-ritonavir compared with standard care included 199 adult patients with confirmed COVID-19, pneumonia, and compromised oxygen saturation. There was no significant difference between the 2 groups in terms of time to clinical improvement or mortality, with more adverse events occurring in the intervention group.

Dr. Bhandari and his colleagues also offer 9 pieces of practical guidance for surgeons, one of which echoes the experience of Emory University orthopaedists and the orthopaedic community in Singapore: Create multiple teams of clinicians who are completely isolated from one another.

The authors concede that it is impossible to accurately predict the trajectory of COVID-19. Even with aggressive containment procedures, the outbreak is unlikely to see meaningful resolution for weeks to months. Their final message to the health-care community: Exercise continued vigilance and preparedness for a possible second wave and a high index of suspicion for any new cases of undifferentiated respiratory illness in the weeks to months following a slowdown in new cases.

Platooning Orthopaedic Residents Amid COVID-19

Under the best of circumstances, an orthopaedic residency requires trainees and trainers to balance clinical work, surgical skills, didactics, and academic investigations. The global COVID-19 crisis is certainly not the best of circumstances. A fast-track article just published in JBJS explains how the urban, high-volume orthopaedic department at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta created a two-team system that helps residents keep learning, helps maintain a healthy workforce, and addresses the needs of orthopedic patients amid this unprecedented situation.

Emory is now dividing its orthopaedic residents into “active duty” and “working remotely” teams. In observation of the presumed incubation period of COVID-19 symptoms, transitions between active and remote activities occur every two weeks. A similar “platooning” system is in place for both faculty and administrators to safeguard a healthy network of leaders and command-and-control decision makers.

Active duty residents participate in in-person surgical encounters and virtual ambulatory encounters. Orthopaedic surgical cases deemed essential present an ideal opportunity for active-duty education, the authors observe, and there is also a role for supplementation of surgical education in the form of virtual reality or simulation training. Faculty members cover their in-person clinics without resident assistance when possible, but most musculoskeletal subspecialty visits can be performed with video-enabled telemedicine, and active-duty residents are part of these virtual clinic visits in real time.

Remotely working residents participate by videoconference in daily faculty-led, case-based didactics. The authors recommend virtually conducted one-and-a-half-hour collaborative, interactive learning sessions on predetermined schedules and topics. Each session includes question-based learning, facilitated with the use of an audience-response system. Remotely working residents also study for their boards and work on clinical research projects, grant writing, and quality improvement projects.

Finally, this team system, championed by strong departmental leadership, allows for isolation of any resident who acquires COVID-19, allowing them time to recover, while diminishing the risk of rapid, residency-wide disease transmission.

More Data on Periprosthetic Hip Infections

Among >100,000 total hip arthroplasty (THA) patients ≥55 years of age whose data resides in a Canadian arthroplasty database, the 15-year cumulative incidence of periprosthetic joint infection (PJI) was 1.44%, according to a study by the McMaster Arthroplasty Collaborative in the March 18, 2020 issue of JBJS.

In addition to finding that the overall risk of developing PJI after THA has not changed over the last 15 years in this cohort, the authors found the following factors associated with increased risk of developing a PJI:

  • Male sex (absolute increased risk of 0.48% at 10 years)
  • Type 2 diabetes (absolute increased risk of 0.64% at 10 years)
  • Discharge to a convalescent-care facility (absolute increased risk of 0.46% at 10 years)

The authors view the third bulleted item above as “a surrogate marker of frailty and poorer general health.”

Patient age, surgical approach, surgical setting (academic versus rural), use of cement, and patient income were not associated with an increased risk of PJI. Nearly two-thirds of PJI cases occurred within 2 years after surgery, and 98% occurred within 10 years postoperatively.

The authors conclude that these and other substantiated findings about PJI risk factors “should be reviewed with the patient during preoperative risk counseling.”

The Fate of Chris Sale’s Left Elbow

Disclosure: The co-authors of this post are lifelong, die-hard, pathological fans of the Boston Red Sox.

At this time of a global public-health emergency, we probably should not be distracted by things like this, but… Yesterday the Boston Red Sox announced that left-handed pitcher Chris Sale, one of the best hurlers in baseball, would undergo Tommy John surgery, otherwise known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (see related Clinical Summary). This, by itself, is not surprising, because by some estimates, one-third of all Major League Baseball pitchers have that operation.

What puts the hitch in our windup is this: In August of 2019, Sale, who was experiencing his worst season ever stat-wise, received an injection of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) in his left elbow and was shut down for the rest of the season. Here we are, 8 months later, and he is facing a surgery that was veritably inevitable and could have happened then rather than now.

PRP has shown promise in treating some musculoskeletal conditions, but its effectiveness in elbow injuries is unproven at best. In response to a surge of research interest in PRP, JBJS recently published an article calling for standardization of PRP preparation protocols and more responsible reporting of methods and findings in the literature so that any positive findings can be replicated in future investigations.

No surgery date for Sale has been announced (most elective orthopaedic surgeries are being postponed to redirect resources to the COVID-19 pandemic), and we don’t know who will perform the surgery. What we do know is that this year is the first of a 5-year, $145 million contract for Sale. While it’s silly to use the words “schedule” or “timeline” for anything now, a best-case scenario would have Sale back on the mound in games in June or July of 2021. We are not privy to the terms of Sale’s contract, but we assume the clock on it is ticking, and several months of an elite pitcher’s career was wasted waiting for a treatment to work that is not backed by any solid science.

Click here for a compendium of JBJS content related to PRP.

Lloyd Resnick
JBJS Developmental Editor

Jason Miller
JBJS Chief Operating Officer