Amid the growing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, currently in its expansive growth phase in the United States, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), and the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE) have jointly released “COVID-19 Clinical Insights for Our Community of Gastroenterologists and Gastroenterology Care Providers,” which can be found on the websites of the various societies.
“The purpose of this communication is to jointly provide you with up to date COVID-19 information in order to maintain the highest level of health and safety for our patients, staff, community, and ourselves,” according to the AGA website announcement.
In particular, the societies point out that there is recent evidence suggesting the potential for coronavirus transmission through droplets and perhaps fecal shedding, which pose potential risks in particular during endoscopy and colonoscopy procedures to other patients, endoscopy personnel, and practitioners.
Relevant clinical factors related to COVID-19 are discussed, including the fact that asymptomatic spread can occur during the prodromal phase (the mean incubation period is approximately 5 days, with a range of 0-14 days), with viral shedding greatest when symptoms begin.
Between 20% and 30% of patients with COVID-19 infection show abnormal liver enzymes. In addition, COVID-19 patients show drops in their leukocyte counts, and elevated white blood cell counts is a poor prognostic sign, according to the release.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists vulnerable populations at the greatest risk for more serious outcomes; these include the elderly and those with severe chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, decompensated cirrhosis, HIV with low CD4 counts, and immunosuppression (including liver and other solid organ transplant recipients), are at higher risk of developing more serious illness. In addition pregnancy may provide added risk.
Specific advice for the gastroenterology profession
The joint statement urges that practitioners strongly consider rescheduling elective nonurgent endoscopic procedures, although some nonurgent procedures are higher priority and may need to be performed, including cancer evaluations, prosthetic removals, and evaluation of significant symptoms. “Of note, the Surgeon General on 3/14/20 advised hospitals to postpone all elective surgeries,” the document states.
In all cases, patients should be prescreened for high-risk exposure or symptoms. This includes asking about history of fever or respiratory symptoms, family members or close contacts with similar symptoms, any contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, and recent travel to a high-risk area. “Avoid bringing patients (or their escorts) into the medical facility who are over age 65 or have one of the CDC recognized risks listed above,” the societies advise.
Check body temperature of the patient upon arrival at endoscopy unit or clinic, and keep all patients at an appropriate distance from each other (6 feet is recommended) throughout the entire time in the endoscopy unit.
“For COVID-19 positive patients, or those awaiting test results, isolation precautions should be taken with procedures performed in negative pressure rooms,” according to the statement.
In addition, use telemedicine where possible in elective cases, and consider phone follow-up after any procedures at 7 and 14 days to ask about new diagnosis of COVID-19 or development of its symptoms, .
Those patients who are on immunosuppressive drugs for inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune hepatitis should continue taking their medications because the risk of disease flare outweighs the chance of contracting coronavirus, according to the document. In addition, these patients should be advised to follow CDC guidelines for at-risk groups by avoiding crowds and limiting travel.
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