In this review, Wilson, Norton, Young & Collins challenge the overly-simplistic view that SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk can be easily divided between droplet-contact and aerosol precautions.
Why is this important?
Many national societies have policies on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guided by classification of COVID exposure into aerosol-generation procedures (AGP) or other exposures. Although founded in some evidence, there are questions as to whether PPE shortage and availability also drives these recommendations. Widespread concern over healthcare worker (HCW) infection is understandable, given that during SARS 20% of infections were among HCWs.
Understanding the science behind respiratory particle generation and transmission helps to inform our understanding of how best to use limited PPE.
On the science of respiratory shedding
Aerosol generation is important because virus inhalation and deposition in small distal airways may be associated with greater infection risk and disease severity. Wilson et al. describe three mechanisms of aerosol generation:
- Laryngeal activity - talking, coughing, sneezing.
- High velocity gas flow - eg. high-flow oxygen
- Cyclical opening & closing of terminal airways.
Notably, the clinically features of COVID itself make all three high-risk mechanisms more likely. Additionally various studies show that even talking and tidal volume breathing produce large numbers and size ranges of respiratory droplets.
Exposure relative risk is primarily about proximity and exposure duration
Further, considering retrospective data form SARS HCW infections involving various procedures (eg. intubation, HCW infection RR 4.2; oxygen mask manipulation RR 9; urinary catheterisation RR 5), Wilson et al. propose that healthcare work risk can be considered:
infection risk ∝ 𝑏 × 𝑣 × 𝑡 / 𝑒
Where: 𝑏 = breathing zone particle viable virion aerosol concentration, 𝑣 = minute volume of healthcare worker, 𝑡 = time exposed , 𝑒 = mask efficiency
And on intubation:
"...[other] healthcare workers should stand over 2 m away and out of the direct exhalation plume. During a rapid sequence intubation muscle relaxation should be protective as coughing will be prevented and high airway gas flow and expiratory output will terminate. When expiratory flow is ended ... aerosol particles should start settling in the airways. The forces generated in gentle laryngoscopy are unlikely to cause aerosol formation."
"...[there is] limited evidence to suggest AGPs cause an increase in airborne healthcare worker transmission as this has not been studied. The few studies to sample pathogenic airborne particles in relation to procedures show no increase with the majority of AGPs."
Bear in mind...
Much of the evidence guiding our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is founded on understanding and research focusing on the 2003 SARS pandemic (SARS-CoV-1) and influenza research. Although sharing similarities, "...each has its own infective inoculum and aerosol characteristics."
What's the bottom-line?
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 should be conceptualised as a spectrum of risk where time exposed may be the dominant factor and droplet-airborne spread is a complex continuum of varying probability of infection. Many 'non-AGP' events could in fact be higher risk than those traditionally considered AGP, such as intubation.summary
Why do we need another PPE review?
This review contextualises the PPE issues with their (relatively low quality) evidence base, focusing particularly on anaesthesia given that this is a high-risk occupational group. Coming from both a UK expert and journal, the recommendations should be carefully considered in terms of the UK's severe COVID outbreak and PPE supply issues.
- The significance of airborne transmission, in particular the infectivity of airborne viral particles beyond 1 meter, is uncertain.
- PPE should be seen as an important and essential part of a larger safety system.
- Intubation is a high-risk procedure for aerosol generation. A ventilated negative pressure room and airborne-precaution PPE is recommended. Ventilation (frequency of air-exchange) is likely more important than negative pressure.1 Chinese evidence suggests COVID transmission at intubation is low with appropriate PPE, although there is wide variability in extremes of PPE used along with post-exposure disinfection (eg. showering).
- High-flow nasal oxygen and supraglottic airway (eg. LMA) placement may also be aerosol generating.
- Most risk of transmission from sneezing and coughing is probably droplet and contact, rather than airborne, although the science behind these questions are complex and uncertain. Evidence attempting to answer these questions is often from non-clinical settings.
- Fluid-resistant surgical masks when worn by staff may reduce transmission by at least 80%. Superiority of respirator masks (eg. P2,P3,N95) is not yet reliably supported by evidence.
- Cook highlights two main PPE problems: 1. PPE supply; 2. Inappropriate use of PPE (using higher level than required).
- PPE should be simple to remove (doff) after use, to reduce contamination risk. Cook notes that Canada's SARS experience highlighted increased risk of self contamination with more complex PPE.
On specific levels of PPE
- Contact precautions (gloves & gown) are recommended when in vicinity of COVID positive patient but not within 2 meters.
- Droplet precautions (+ mask & eye protecting) are recommended within 2 meters of patients.
- Airborne precautions (+ FFP3 respirator mask) are only recommended for aerosol generating procedures (AGP). However classification of procedures as AGP or not is only loosely evidence based.
"Public Health England recommends airborne precautions are used in ‘hot spots’ where aerosol generating procedure are regularly performed, if any suspected COVID-19 patients are present – these include intensive care unit, operating theatre, emergency department resuscitation bays and labour wards where mothers are in stage 2 or 3 of labour"
The elephant in the room is that the lack of PPE supply appears to be the main driver of the rapidly-changing PPE recommendations.
PPE choices need to be made in consideration of the spectrum of risk, hazard and cost, acknowledging different risk profiles depending on location, procedure and individual clinicians.
It's worth highlighting that negative pressure confers no protection on those in the room, it's purpose is to prevent escape of contagion to areas outside the room. ↩
In this review, Karmali & Rose challenge the dogma surrounding endotracheal tube sizing for adult anaesthesia, traditionally sizing based on sex.
What did they cover?
They explored both the functional consequences (good and bad) of ETT size, as well as airway trauma.
Noting that an ETT ≥ 6.0mm ID will accomodate most intraluminal devices, and in fact at these smaller sizes fibreoptic intubation or passage through an LMA is easier, however smaller tubes are more readily obstructed and deformed.
Ventilation through smaller ETTs
While smaller tubes may require slightly higher inspiratory pressures, these are generally not clinically significant with modern ventilators, and importantly do not translate to higher intra-tracheal or alveolar pressures experienced by the patient.
Similarly, expiratory gas flow is not significantly effected by a small ETT (6.0 mm) for most patients even at high minute ventilations (although use cautiously in patients with chronic airway limitation). Significant gas trapping at normal MV will start to occur with ETT < 5.0 mm.
Size and airway trauma?
While the internal diameter (ID) is important for anaesthesia conduct, it is the external diameter that matters for airway trauma (a standard 8.0 mm ID ETT has a 10.5 mm ED!).
They note while there is wide individual variation in tracheal dimensions, the trachea is narrowest at the subglottis – and thus adequate visualisation of the glottis at time of intubation is an incomplete indicator of the tube size suitability for the subglottis.
Not only do some adult women have an airway size at the lower-limit of acceptability for traditional 7.0-8.0 mm ETTs, but there is also correlation between ETT size and airway trauma, hoarseness and sore throat. A large ETT can result in mucosal ischaemia and ulceration after as little as 2 hours.
"Instead of opting for ‘the largest tube that the larynx will comfortably accommodate’, we perhaps should consider using the smallest tube which permits the safe conduct of anaesthesia."
For routine anaesthesia of ASA 1 & 2 patients, an ETT sized 6.0-7.0 mm is probably the best balance between ventilation needs and airway trauma.
But remember, many of the concerns for tracheal tube trauma are based upon critical care experience, not anaesthesia. While a smaller tube is very likely beneficial for most elective adult patients, most benefit will simply be reduction in post-operative sore throat and hoarseness.summary
Randomized Controlled Trial Multicenter Study Comparative Study
An editorial on pandemic information overload?
But setting aside the irony of adding 2,000 more words on COVID-19 information overload, Kearsley & Duffy neatly explore the challenge:
"Since the outbreak of this pandemic, our e-mail inboxes, social media feeds and even general news outlets have become saturated with new guidelines, revisions of guidelines, new protocols and updated protocols, all subject to constant amendments."
What's the thesis?
The authors' argument is that too much information in the era of COVID may be a bad thing: the marginal benefit of 'more' may be overwhelmed by the negative cost.
They acknowledge the tension between the pragmatic and perfect when it comes to information sources in the face of a rapidly advancing disease – and in particular the recurrent waves of shifting clinical guidelines.
Kearsley & Duffy mention the important role of rapid research, worryingly tempered by a surge in volume, but fall in quality, along with mainstream promotion of non-peer reviewed and pre-print investigations. They note how information technology in the pandemic climate exploits our biases: confirmation, anchoring, and novelty.
At an individual level they discuss the risk of pandemic 'alert fatigue', the growth of social media and excessive information sharing making quality assessment difficult, and the negative effect of both on well-being.
We each have significant personal responsibility to consider the consequences when sharing information, especially if incomplete or risk of misunderstanding when stripped of context.
"As we learn to live with this virus it is important for us to be cognisant that we are all at risk of error; we need to work to reduce information overload and focus on unifying our approach to both information dissemination and presentation. We must go back to basics and apply the well-practiced human factors principles of good teamwork, communication and leadership.
We need to avoid a situation where a crisis is overmanaged and underlead; “Ipsa scientia potestas est" or 'knowledge itself is power' – from what COVID-19 is teaching us however, can too much knowledge be a bad thing?"