In light of the need to assess priorities of surgical treatment in a resource-limited environment, NHS England have set out clinical priorities for cancer surgery. However, these priorities do not take into account the vulnerability of the patient to excess morbidity and mortality in the event of Covid-19 infection. It seems evident that, particularly when undertaking elective surgery, the vulnerability of a patient to Covid-19 related morbidity and mortality might be equally important to considerations of the timing of surgery as the underlying disease for which surgery is proposed.
The resource allocation system currently in use at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust (which has since been adopted throughout other hospitals at Northern care Alliance) takes both of these factors into account, by producing a score based upon the need to prioritise treatment on purely disease related grounds and also the vulnerability of the patient to Covid-19. The aim is to generate a score which can be used to determine the overall surgical treatment priority of a group of patients, possibly from different surgical subspecialties, when surgical resources have become limited as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The score allows different groups of surgeons and hospital management to objectively determine how temporarily limited resources might be allocated. It is meant to help guide collective discussions, not to be a rigid indicator of those patients for whom surgical treatment should be deferred, and it should be used to support, not to replace MDT discussions.
Cancer Surgery Priority
The NHS England Suggested Priority for Cancer surgery is summarised in table 1 below.
Priority level 1a
• Emergency: operation needed within 24 hours to save life
Priority level 1b
• Urgent:operation needed with 72 hours Based on: urgent/emergency surgery for life threatening conditions such as obstruction, bleeding and regional and/or localised infection permanent injury/clinical harm from progression of conditions such as spinal cord compression
Priority level 2
Elective surgery with the expectation of cure, prioritised according to: • Surgery within 4 weeks to save life/progression of disease beyond operability. Based on:urgency of symptoms, complications such as local compressive symptoms, biological priority (expected growth rate) of individual cancers
NB. Local complications may be temporarily controlled, for example with stents if surgery is deferred and /or interventional radiology.
Priority level 3
Elective surgery can be delayed for 10-12weeks with no predicted negative outcome.
Table 1: NHS England Suggested Priority for Cancer surgery
However we could make resource allocation easier if we devised a simple, objective and consistent way of summarising the two variables which influence decision making – clinical treatment priority and risk of COVID-related adverse outcome, into one numerical score;
The “Salford Score” simplifies this to:
Priority 1a = score (P)1
Priority 1b = score (P)2
Priority 2 = score (P)3
Priority 3 = score (P)4
A second component of this relates to vulnerability of the patient in case of a COVID infection (see table 2).
Outcome in case of COVID infection
Vulnerability level 1
• Unlikely to have excess mortality (compared to a completely fit individual < 70 years old) in the event of Covid infection
Vulnerability level 2
• Likely to have significant excess mortality compared to a completely fit individual < 70 years old in the event of Covid-19 infection, but would ordinarily receive invasive ventilation in that eventuality
Vulnerability level 3
• Extremely likely to succumb to Covid-19 infection and would not ordinarily receive invasive ventilation in that eventuality
Table 2: Vulnerability score
A resource allocation score of PxV, is then calculated so that a fit patient at high risk of imminent death of underlying disease (P1or 2) and unlikely to have excess Covid mortality (V1) would score 1 or 2 (and get urgent surgical treatment), whereas a patient with a non-immediately life threatening condition (P4) for which surgical treatment could be safely be delayed for 12 weeks and who would not, as a result of severe pre-existing medical comorbidity, be intubated etc. should they develop Covid and respiratory failure (V3) would score 12 and we would not proceed to offer surgery until the current resource position changes.
A hypothesis paper on alternating population quarantine instead of lockdowns: a surgeon’s approach to the problem.
The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading quickly, threatening healthcare systems and the world economy. Test and tracing methods used efficiently in Asian countries are not feasible in countries with scarce test capacities. Current lockdown strategies are insufficient as not everyone can be quarantined for 2 weeks at the same time. An alternative strategy to extensive lockdown – namely an alternating home quarantine of half the population for 2 weeks at a time – is described in this post. This may be an efficient way to stop the spreading of the disease, buying time to establish test routines and a vaccine. At the same time it may prevent the economy and healthcare systems from collapsing.
As the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is newly identified, the actual case fatality rate (CFR) and susceptibility in the population are uncertain. During the Chinese outbreak the CFR was calculated to be 2.9% in the Hubei province compared to 0.4% outside Hubei (overall 2.8%) . In Italy it is at the moment 8.5% . The actual CFR is probably closer to 1% with optimal treatment capacities and early and complete detection. No natural immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 has been shown. Post exposure immunity after sub clinic infection is however probable, which would explain why the Chinese outbreaks outside Wuhan were less intense. Neither a vaccine nor approved treatment are currently available, although there are ongoing trials with several drugs both for treatment and prophylaxis.
Both South Korea and Singapore are conducting widespread testing of symptomatic patients combined with short-term lockdowns and tracing of close contacts to infected individuals. This strategy seems to have been very successful. Also China, where the virus originated, appears to have stopped the outbreak with combination of complete lockdown in hotspots, intensive testing and tracing, as well as restrictions in people’s mobility combined with partial lockdowns in other regions.
The rest of the world faces the challenge of widespread virus dissemination, which makes conventional containment measures as well as intensive test and tracing methods infeasible. Frankly, one doesn’t know where to look. In Italy, the European epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, a national lockdown was imposed the 9th of March. Several countries have introduced similar interventions with the aim “to flatten the curve”. The idea is to postpone and lower the peak of the epidemic curve to enable healthcare systems to cope, particularly with the high demand for mechanical ventilation. Another aspect of postponing instead of stopping the pandemic is the hope for so called “herd immunity” which will help to prevent later outbreaks.
All above-mentioned community interventions come at a very high cost. The world economy is starting to halt. As the current measures will need to be in place for a very long time, they may hinder sufficient supply of urgently needed equipment. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the imposed actions are even close to slowing the pandemic sufficiently. The disease is highly contagious (R0 has been estimated between 2.4 and 3 in the Hubei Province and between 2.3 and 14.8 at the start of the Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak) and even severe currently used community interventions will not entirely stop community transmission. Data from Italy for March 23rd show that the number of patients was still rising on average 14% the 10 preceding days; even in the region of Lombardy (first lockdowns February 27th) this figure was still 11% (down from 26% between Feb 23rd – Mar 3rd) although the number of new cases is finally declining. The Italian healthcare system is on the verge of collapse (Figure 1).
Currently, approximately 50,000 Italians are reported to have an ongoing Covid-19 infection. Even if the correct number was 20 fold (ascertainment in Wuhan was previously estimated to 5% (95%CI, 3.6–7.4)) that would be < 2% of the Italian population. One can only but imagine the consequences of 40% being infected. Currently, other European countries are struggling to prepare for the coming pandemic and consequently little aid is offered to Italy. The situation in the US is also currently escalating.
Hypothesis: A coordinated alternating nation- or region-wide quarantine of the whole population is an efficient way to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, with less impact on economies and on everyday life than the currently imposed partial lockdowns.
The idea is to divide the whole population in two groups (A and B) for a period of eight weeks. Both groups will stay in alternating home quarantine for two weeks at a time (quarantine length recommended by the WHO for Covid-19) while the other group attends to daily life. All symptomatic individuals during quarantine are either tested or need to remain in quarantine with their households. Positive tested individuals and their household members remain in home isolation until negative test result. Individuals in home-quarantine at the start of the first period are allocated to group A.
During this four-week period, other interventions should continue (cough and hand hygiene, social distancing, no public meetings, shut-down of cinema/theatres). Patients at risk should preferably be isolated for the whole period and some critical personnel might need to work the whole period (Figure2). The cycle may need to be repeated at the end of week 4 if there are many newly diagnosed patients in group A after the quarantine.
There are five prerequisites for this intervention to be effective:
It is essential that all members of one household are in the same group.
The group in home quarantine needs to stay at home and either buy all supplies for 2 weeks before the start of the period, or be supplied by the community (i.e. by the group that is not quarantined); this is to prevent new infections. Only few exceptions should be made (for example chronically ill or acutely unwell patients in need of hospital treatment and patients receiving home nursing or staying in institutions).
There should be as little contact as possible (preferably no contact) between the groups when switching quarantine periods. Non-avoidable contacts need to be traceable.
The start of the two periods needs to be coordinated for large areas, preferably whole countries, or country unions (for example the whole European Community).
There are different ways to allocate the population to the groups – community wise, according to where people work (for example a whole factory may pause for 2 weeks as long as household members of employees are allocated to the same group), by postal code or house number. The optimal way may differ between countries and communities. Group A may be larger than group B in order to get a quick control of the situation, especially in Hotspots. The whole 4-week circle needs to be followed by an active surveillance with intensive testing. A detailed plan by domestic health authorities for workers in critical positions who need to work throughout the whole period can minimize the chance of “contamination” of Group A and B after the home quarantine periods (for example home delivery of food to those working with Covid-19 patients). Figure 3 shows a very simplified model of the effect of social distancing and lockdowns compared to alternating quarantine.
The main strength of alternating population quarantine is that the risk of community acquired Covid-19 infection is reduced to a minimum already after week 2. Furthermore, this concept would enable countries to stop the pandemic quickly locally. The impact on economy would be minimalized as several businesses can run for a short period of time with half the workforce. Temporary working hour adjustments or reduction in activity may compensate for the loss of work force.
The concept has some drawbacks. It requires either complete compliance by the population or effective control mechanisms with law enforcement. However, when confronted with the alternative of a never-ending partial shutdown combined with a probable major recession or that of staying at home for a limited time, the choice should be easy and politicians should be able to motivate the majority of the public to stay at home for two weeks at a time.
Another aspect is the susceptibility of the population for a new outbreak due to lack of immunity. However, the cycle of home quarantine can be repeated if necessary until sufficient test capacities, vaccines or treatments are available which is still preferable to a never-ending partial lockdown. Asymptomatic Covid-19 positive patients may prevent the success of this method. The proportion of asymptomatic patients has been estimated to be 18% during the Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak.
It is likely that asymptomatic individuals will often be in close relation to symptomatic ones. A double cycle could allow us to identify almost all; it is however even more difficult to conduct. Experience from Asian countries shows that quarantine and isolation measures do work and that it is sufficient to test those who are symptomatic in order to find asymptomatic transmitters. When new clusters are detected, the method may even be repeated in affected areas. Many adaptions of this method are possible. Advanced epidemiological models and increasing knowledge about the disease may help to optimize it. The main principle however remains: to reliably separate the infected population from the non-infected in space and time.
At the moment, many countries are expanding ICU capacities. In my own hospital, this is possibly to a six-fold of normal capacity, and this may not even be enough. Furthermore, the current pandemic already prevents elective patients from receiving care. In addition, the current situation causes major damage to the world economy. Although the number of newly infected patients in Italy has been falling the last two days, there may be a quick raise again once restrictions are lifted. We should therefore do whatever we can to stop the pandemic rather than postpone its peak. This is not only to protect the old and vulnerable, but also to save our healthcare systems and our societies from collapsing and to avoid a new era of Great Depression. To quote one principle of damage control surgery: “the treatment of bleeding is to stop the bleeding”. The current approach is similar to treating a bleeding patient with transfusions and a simple bandage to slow the bleeding.
One might argue that it is unethical to expose group B for transmission longer than group A. However, the risk of infection for group B will be reduced considerably compared to what it is now already in when group A is quarantined. Furthermore, the exposure for Group B could be minimized by increasing the Size of group A. Two weeks of strict home quarantine may also increase the risk of home violence; this is however not much different from lockdowns.
With the current knowledge about Covid-19, the current strategy of delaying the pandemic seems to hazardous. The present hypothesis of alternating home quarantine can only be tested by governments of countries or provinces, but time is precious.
I would like to thank my colleagues and family for critical discussions. I would also like to thank Sheraz Yaqub and Ørjan Olsvik for a critical review of the paper. Further, I thank my Italian colleagues Michela Monteleone and Dario Tartaglia for inside information from the epicenter of the European outbreak.
None other than a close bond to Italy, #tuttoandrabene! Funding: none.
Johannes Kurt Schultz is a surgeon at the Akershus university Hospital in Norway.
When the first cases of the disease that would have been later named COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) caused by SARS-CoV2 were described in Wuhan approximately three months ago, it would have been difficult to predict the impact and the burden that the subsequent outbreak would have had globally. The first case was tracked back to November 2019, indeed the spread COVID-19 proved to be incredibly rapid, and is currently causing several challenges to most health systems.
Among European countries, Italy has been hit first and more deeply, the reasons for this still being analysed, and no agreed explanation available. Since the first cases were described on the 30th January 2020, two Chinese tourists, the outbreak showed a logarithmic growth, and by today (16/03/2020), the overall number of individuals who tested positive was 24 747 (20 603 still positive) with 1809 deaths. This would mean a mortality rate overall as high as 7.3%, and 43.6% of those who had an outcome. Of those currently infected, approximately 8% is in serious/critical conditions. Lombardy, considered the economic heart of Italy, where an ideal health system is in place, registered the highest number of COVID-19, exceeding 13 200 patients, more than half than all Italian cases. The outbreak is rapidly spreading to the entire peninsula, islands not being spared: almost 1000 cases between South and Islands (3.73%). Even if these figures might not seem worrisome, they actually are, as facilities and infrastructures might not be prepared to afford a similar outbreak as that observed in Northern Italy, and the system could collapse. Restrictive measures had to be taken, and the Italian Government ordered an unpreceded lockdown effective as the 12th March 2020, and its effect and meaning are well testified by the empty Italian cities. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is closed; St. Peter’s Square in Rome is empty.
These images are self-explanatory. Similar measures are being taken in other European countries, even if the strategies to face COVID-19 were not consistent. Spain followed a similar pathway observed in Italy, with 7753 cases and 288 death as of today, mainly in Madrid, and adopted the same measures.
The impact of COVID-19 on our society is already immense, and some have suggested that the post-pandemic era is likely to blow away the world as we used to know it.
COVID-19 and Cancer
Liang et al. analysed the cases of COVID-19 in China, and found that patients with cancers were at higher risk of developing the symptoms from SARS-CoV2 infection. Out of 1590 COVID-19 cases analysed, an history of cancer was found in 1% of them, versus 0.29% observed in the general population. One out of four had received chemotherapy or surgery within 30 days from infection, whereas another 25% were on follow-up after treatment. This might suggest that cancer patients might be at increased risk, even after curative treatment of the disease, for reasons that are not completely understood. Liang et al. also suggested that severe events were more common in cancer patients with COVID-19, as more patients in this population required invasive treatment measures or died compared with patients without cancer (even [39%] of 18 patients vs 124 [8%] of 1572 patients; Fisher’s exact p=0·0003); the risk was even higher if chemotherapy or surgery were performed in the last month, administered. These findings raise concerns on the ideal care to provide to such patients and whether or not should chemotherapy be continued during the outbreak, or at least stopped or reduced in selected patients at higher risk of infection. Of note, the actual impact of COVID-19 on the outcome of cancer patients in this specific cohort remains to be clearly proven, as the age of this cohort was higher than that of non-cancer patients with COVID-19. Moreover, they were more frequently smokers, and more frequently had polypnea. These considerations advocate for prudence at the time of interpreting the findings of studies which are currently being published on the topic, due to the limited knowledge available and to the relatively low (yet) number of cases described in these publications, which might be underpowered to show clinically relevant findings.
Similar concerns are applicable to patients who are chronically immunodepressed and to those with chronic conditions that might expose them to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, and with potentially detrimental outcomes.
COVID-19 and usual hospital routine
The effects on COVID-19 on patients with chronic diseases or cancers are more extensive than the risk of contracting the virus for carriers of these conditions. The health system is almost collapsing in several countries, with few available beds in intensive care units. Elective surgery has been stopped in many hospitals, giving priority to cancer patients and to emergency. The personnel is being shortened to the minimum necessary to deliver the basic services, and, while intensive care units and medical wards are saturated, the current appearance of surgical wards is appalling.
Notwithstanding the effort put in treating as many cancer patients as possible, the timeliness of cures is inevitably delayed, and the outcomes of treatment might well be affected in the long-term. At the same time, screening is not being offered consistently. A delayed diagnosis is associated with worse outcome in cancer surgery. Sanjeevi et al. showed that potentially curable pancreatic cancers had 0% unresectability rate at surgery when the interval between imaging and resection was shorter than 23 days, highlighting the importance of acting within a window of opportunity to achieve optimal survival results. An analysis of a US National Cancer database with over 60 thousands patients with curable colon cancer, found that overall survival was longer in patients operated on within 16 days from diagnosis compared with those operated on after 37 days or more (5-year survival 75.4 vs 71.9%, 10-year survival 56.6 vs 49.7%, both p<0.001). Moreover, the long-term effects and associated indirect costs of cancer surgery include the assessment of lost work-hours due to sick leave after surgery. Postoperative recovery after colorectal cancer surgery might be slower than thought, and advanced disease further impair return to work, suggesting that delaying diagnosis and surgery impacts the economy further.
Many chronic conditions are likely to be affected by delayed treatment. Patients waiting for transplantation are another facet to consider. Discussions are ongoing globally in order to face these difficult situations, and how to deal with the current status of things still remains to be clarified.
Patients, family, and COVID-19
During crisis, priorities are being reorganized, meaning that priority is given to patients with more worrisome conditions or those more likely to benefit from a treatment. However, this generates a stressful environment and brings about nonnegligible consequences to individuals’ wellbeing. Surgical patients with conditions that are not being regarded as priority may feel let down by the doctors and the health system, and they need appropriate support to face this new condition, and their families to be cared for, and this will be much more relevant once the current acme of the outbreak has settled. Many societies and patients’ associations have made available for patients’ guidance and suggestions to help them during these difficult times.
Moreover, family visits to patients who are currently being hospitalized are being strictly controlled, so that the postoperative recovery or the in-hospital stay in general are made even more challenging by an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
Emergencies can bring to light the worst aspects of humanity, but they can also strengthen the spirit of collaboration against a common issue. Even if many have been forced in isolation or quarantined, even if travel is forbidden from and to several countries, social media proved again to be a powerful means to disseminate knowledge, to facilitate discussions, and to establish collaborative initiatives on a global scale.
The response to the fears of doctors and patients on how to deal with COVID-19 and how to act during the outbreak has been immediate, and several scientific societies have provided documents and platforms to be used as guidance. The Spanish Association of Surgeons (Asociación Española de Cirujanos, AEC) released on the 15th March a Position Statement that can be freely accessed on the measures to be taken for patients needing surgery during the pandemic, and a similar initiative has been announced by the Spanish Association of Coloproctology (Asociación Española de Coloproctología, AECP), with specific focus on patients needing surgery for colorectal conditions. These documents are being developed with an innovative format, meaning that they are solidly grounded on available evidence but they are dynamic, open to updating that can occur within hours.
This is relevant at a time when no agreed policy has been decided to face the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, not all nations have decided to adopt the same stringent measures acting in Italy and Spain, and likely to be extended to France and other countries. For example, UK has announced a different strategy, relying on the development of an immunity against COVID-19, with no need for restrictive measures. Indeed, this was not agreed by the entire scientific community, and hundreds of UK scientists signed an open letter pressing the Government to enforce social distancing. It is difficult to identify which strategy is the more appropriate, but a common effort towards an agreed strategy is desirable in the following months.
A joint GI Society Message on COVID-19 was released on the 16th March by the American Gastroenterology Association, the American Association for Liver Disease, the American College of Gastroenterology, and the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. The document deals with recommendations to provide care, including endoscopy, to patients with gastrointestinal conditions during the pandemic.
An initiative that rapidly captured the attention of the surgical community globally was the launch of an international prospective registry of patients operated on for whichever condition while positive for COVID-19. The initiative was launched by Aneel Bhangu on the 14th March on Twitter and is open for registration. A draft protocol is available to access and registration can be performed at this link.
These initiatives will hopefully help to clarify the actual impact of COVID-19 on surgical patients, and help to define the ideal pathways and perioperative management of these patients.
Impact on psychical well-being of healthcare professionals: who cares for the carers?
Last but not least, healthcare professionals are being exposed on the frontline. They are working in extremely difficult conditions, far different from what most of them were trained to work. The intensely stressful conditions in which doctors, surgeons and all healthcare professionals are called to work, is exposing them and their families to unpredictable consequences.
Not being able to treat everyone, the need to do extra shifts, wearing protective equipment during the entire shifts as well as the lack of protective devices, the fear of getting infected, all contribute to a potential burnout.
Doctors are choosing to isolate themselves from their relatives, in order to protect them, even if asymptomatic. The fear of being tested positive, apart from the fact that being affected already implies, brings about the necessity of being quarantined, and further reduces the number of available team members. This is further aggravated by the required quarantine for those colleagues who were in contact with the index healthcare professional tested positive.
Indeed, many institutions and entities are providing help to doctors struggling with the current crisis. The Physician Council of Barcelona (Colegio de Medicos de Barcelona, COMB), for example, established a telephone-based service to support doctors who are experiencing psychological stress and difficulties while in isolation, and a similar service was offered to struggling doctors at local hospitals (e.g. Hospital Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona). Similar initiatives are needed, and must not be limited to the emergency only, but should last long after this has been controlled.
Things are changing rapidly with COVID-19. A financial crisis is likely to occur, that will require to be faced jointly when the emergency has been resolved. It is however needed to maintain our focus on what we are doing every day with every single patient, and those of us who are isolated need not to forget that this is part of caring for the others. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, all the healthcare professionals need to feel backed by the institutions and by the people. In Italy and Spain, people under lockdown have started clapping their hands as a tribute to healthcare professionals. During such difficult times, similar spontaneous acts are fuel for our practice and help us to cope with the burden and the negativity that COVID-19 has spread, while scanning the horizon in search of the end of the current crisis.
Gianluca Pellino (@GianlucaPellino) and Antonino Spinelli (@AntoninoSpin) are surgeons from Italy.