What ICU doctors have learned about COVID-19 — and how theyre prepared for a 2nd wave – NBC News

The World Well being Group had simply declared COVID-19 a pandemic when intensive care models in the US began to see an inflow of severely in poor health sufferers. It was mid-March, and although coronavirus circumstances had been mounting in international locations together with China, South Korea and Italy, within the U.S. there was nonetheless a dearth of data about how the virus unfold, the way it affected sufferers, and what sort of risk it posed to the medical doctors treating them.

Inside three months, essential care physicians throughout the nation obtained a crash course on a illness that did not exist within the U.S. earlier than this 12 months, and are extra ready within the occasion of a second wave of the sickness. Now, in June, medical doctors have a greater sense of which medicines and interventions to make use of or keep away from, how the virus impacts the physique, and the best way to face their very own COVID-19 fears.

Full protection of the coronavirus outbreak

At first, “everybody had the priority of getting contaminated,” Dr. Francis Castiller, medical director of essential care at UNC REX Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, stated. The brand new illness was spreading quickly, earlier than many ICUs have been in a position to put together for the surge or shield their workers appropriately.

Dr. Josh Denson, a pulmonary drugs and important care doctor in New Orleans, stated he identified the primary critically in poor health COVID-19 affected person in Louisiana. However the hospital didn’t but have strict protocols for quarantining sufferers.

“They hadn’t remoted this affected person appropriately, so my staff members and I have been uncovered,” stated Denson, who works at Tulane Medical Heart however was at a special hospital when he was uncovered to the virus. “We had actual issues about whether or not we have been going to get this or not.”

He by no means obtained sick, and has since examined destructive for COVID-19 antibodies.

Nevertheless it was these fears, partly, that affected how critically in poor health sufferers have been cared for to start with of the outbreak within the U.S.


COVID-19 notoriously wreaks havoc on the lungs, leaving severely in poor health sufferers struggling to breathe. As circumstances began rising within the U.S., medical doctors regarded to their colleagues in Italy, who have been already in the course of an enormous inflow of extraordinarily sick sufferers.

For sufferers with extreme respiratory issues, the Italian medical doctors have been utilizing a kind of remedy known as excessive movement nasal oxygen, a a lot much less invasive method than placing a affected person on a mechanical ventilator. Sufferers can get 100 % oxygen by the nostril with out having to have a respiratory tube put in place.

However an unusually excessive variety of well being care personnel in Italy — 20 %, based on an editorial in The Lancet medical journal — have been changing into contaminated with the coronavirus. They blamed the excessive movement nasal oxygen, figuring the therapy was aerosolizing the virus, spreading it to medical doctors and nurses.

In consequence, many medical doctors within the U.S. have been initially cautious of utilizing excessive movement oxygen for COVID-19 sufferers.

“We have been very involved, so we did not use it,” stated Dr. Hugh Cassiere, director of essential care drugs at Northwell Well being’s North Shore College Hospital on Lengthy Island, New York.

As an alternative, sufferers have been intubated and placed on ventilators, usually instantly. “Reviews from different locations was that you need to put folks on the ventilator early, as a result of the illness was so quickly progressive,” Dr. Todd Rice, an affiliate professor of drugs at Vanderbilt College Medical Heart, stated.

However placing sufferers on ventilators comes with dangers, too, together with an infection and unintentional injury to the lungs. Fairly often, sufferers require heavy sedatives to paralyze them so medical doctors can get the respiratory tube into the sufferers’ windpipe. That process, known as intubation, additionally carries the chance of an infection and lung issues, and might expose well being care staff to virus-filled respiratory droplets.

That is a giant deal. In the event you can stop somebody from being intubated, that would change their entire course.

What’s extra, the longer an individual stays on a ventilator, the better the possibilities for blood clots, gastrointestinal bleeding, pneumonia and demise.

The primary few months have been a studying expertise. Now, medical doctors are attempting to keep away from ventilators if attainable. Each Rice and Cassiere stated extra present knowledge present excessive movement oxygen doesn’t put well being care staff at elevated danger. And expertise has proven them that not all sufferers require a ventilator. When attainable, medical doctors see if sufferers enhance with the excessive movement oxygen first.

“That is a giant deal,” Cassiere stated. “In the event you can stop somebody from being intubated, that would change their entire course.”

Concentrating on the kidneys

Regardless of makes an attempt to maneuver away from ventilators, some COVID-19 sufferers nonetheless want them. Because the pandemic has progressed, it is turn out to be obvious that coronavirus sufferers on ventilators want particular care.

When sufferers are placed on a ventilator, they’re usually given diuretics to eliminate further fluid within the physique. Lungs that need assistance have to be “dry” to operate correctly. After they’re moist, “they can not transfer oxygen as effectively,” Denson stated.

However the coronavirus has since proved it is not a easy respiratory sickness. It will probably have an effect on the lungs, the mind, the blood and, critically for sufferers on ventilators, the kidneys.

Not like lungs, kidneys want to be hydrated. The longer sufferers are stored dehydrated, their probabilities of kidney failure enhance. Denson stated he is modified his remedies for COVID-19 sufferers to offer further hydration in the event that they’re displaying injury to the kidneys.

“I am focusing on the kidneys slightly bit extra,” he stated. “I am much less aggressive up entrance getting folks dry, and I am extra keen to make use of fluids if wanted.”

It is a balancing act that requires excessive consideration on the a part of ICU medical doctors and their workers. An excessive amount of hydration hurts the lungs. Too little hurts the kidneys. “It is a fixed battle,” Denson stated.


When medical doctors confronted the primary surge of severely in poor health COVID-19 sufferers, no medication had been proven to work in opposition to the virus, making therapy tougher. In consequence, medical doctors have been keen to attempt sure medicines based mostly on restricted proof.

Early on within the pandemic, the drug hydroxychloroquine emerged as a possible therapy, following two research that steered it may be useful. In consequence, many sufferers got the drug, which is already authorised for malaria and rheumatoid arthritis. However medical doctors quickly discovered the drug was not helpful in treating COVID-19, and subsequent analysis has proven it doesn’t seem to assist.

Now, medical doctors in ICUs are turning to the drug remdesivir. It isn’t a treatment, nevertheless it’s the one therapy that is been proven in a medical trial to affect the sickness up to now.

Some physicians are additionally discovering success with different pharmaceutical approaches, although proof stays anecdotal.

Cassiere has given ventilated sufferers steroids to cut back irritation within the lungs.

“I used to be gun-shy up entrance about doing that, as a result of I used to be involved I might be doing extra hurt,” Cassiere stated, citing analysis from the 2003 SARS outbreak that steered steroids trigger coronaviruses to linger longer in sufferers. He discovered that combining the steroids with convalescent plasma, an antibody-rich blood product of recovered COVID-19 sufferers, appeared to cancel out that danger.

Cassiere additionally stated he is modified his strategies of sedating sufferers who have to be placed on a ventilator, choosing fewer narcotics like fentanyl in favor of different medication similar to benzodiazepines or ketamine.

“My expertise has been that the narcotics hold round longer, and should have one thing to do with the extended awakening a few of these sufferers have,” Cassiere stated, referring to those that take an unusually very long time to get up from a coma after being faraway from a ventilator.

Sustaining connection by a prolonged sickness

That COVID-19 sufferers are usually sick for a very long time, spending weeks within the intensive care unit in some circumstances, is one other issue physicians are getting used to in coping with COVID-19.

“Caring for sufferers requires numerous endurance,” Dr. Steve Stigler, director of the medical intensive care unit on the College of Alabama at Birmingham, stated. He coaches his physicians to remain the course with therapy and supportive care.

Sufferers “enhance up to a degree, after which it may be a number of weeks earlier than we might see them proceed to enhance,” Stigler stated.

Castiller, of UNC REX Hospital in Raleigh, additionally stated it is important for ICU physicians to speak that to households of COVID-19 sufferers.

One of many greatest classes we have realized is the significance of human contact.

“Households want to arrange for that, in addition to peaks and valleys” seen so usually within the sickest sufferers, Castiller informed NBC Information. To supply assist, Castiller stated his workers calls sufferers’ households day by day with updates.

Rice’s staff at Vanderbilt does the identical. “Daily, we name households and say, ‘Here is the replace on your beloved.’ It is gone actually, rather well, and it is one thing we’re happy with,” he stated. The workers additionally makes use of videoconference know-how, like Zoom, so the household can go to with sufferers.

“One of many greatest classes we have realized is the significance of human contact,” Castiller stated. Hospital restrictions that prohibit visiting COVID-19 sufferers have been main stressors for households, in addition to these within the hospital. “We make certain to deal with that by utilizing know-how to keep up some degree of communication.”

‘I am a COVID-19 warrior now’

Early fears that essential care physicians had about changing into contaminated with the coronavirus have eased considerably. Cassiere, who stated he was terrified in the beginning of bringing the virus dwelling to his household, has examined destructive for antibodies. He credit applicable use of private protecting gear, similar to masks, gloves and robes.

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“All my safety I’ve had has helped. I am assured that I am not bringing it dwelling. I am assured that if I am protected, I am not going to get contaminated,” Cassiere stated. “And now, I am armed with the data and completely different approaches I’ve for battling COVID-19.”

Expertise issues. “Being a very good essential care physician is numerous expertise,” Rice added. “Now we have seen this, and we have performed this, and it’ll end in us offering even higher take care of our sufferers.”

“We all know we do not know all the things about it, however we all know the spectrum of illness and what it does to the physique,” Cassiere stated. “I did not know that again in March. I’ve all that data behind me. I am a COVID-19 warrior now. We’re completely ready for it.”

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