Doctors report difficulty differentiating COVID-19 from other viral infections, impacting clinical laboratory test orders
Because the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is in the same family of viruses that cause the common cold and influenza, virologists expected this virus—which caused the global COVID-19 pandemic—would evolve and mutate into a milder form of infection. Early evidence from this influenza season seems consistent with these expectations in ways that will influence how clinical laboratories offer tests for different respiratory viruses.
While new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continue to appear, indications are that early in this flu season individuals infected with the more recent variants are experiencing milder symptoms when compared to the last few years. Doctors report they find it increasingly difficult to distinguish COVID-19 infections from allergies or the common cold because patients’ symptoms are less severe, according to NBC News.
This, of course, makes it challenging for doctors to know the most appropriate clinical laboratory tests to order to help them make accurate diagnoses.
“It isn’t the same typical symptoms that we were seeing before. It’s a lot of congestion, sometimes sneezing, usually a mild sore throat,” Erick Eiting, MD, Vice Chair of Operations for Emergency Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told NBC News. “Just about everyone who I’ve seen has had really mild symptoms. The only way that we knew that it was COVID was because we happened to be testing them.” Knowing which tests for respiratory viruses that clinical laboratories need to perform may soon be the challenge for doctors. (Photo copyright: Mt. Sinai.)
Milder COVID-19 Symptoms Follow a Pattern
Previous hallmarks of a COVID-19 infection included:
Loss of taste,
loss of smell,
However, physicians now observe milder symptoms of the infection that follow a distinct pattern and which are mostly concentrated in the upper respiratory tract.
Grace McComsey, MD, Vice President of Research and Associate Chief Scientific Officer at University Hospitals Health System (UH) in Cleveland, Ohio, told NBC News that some patients have described their throat pain as “a burning sensation like they never had, even with Strep in the past.”
“Then, as soon as the congestion happens, it seems like the throat gets better,” she added.
In addition to the congestion, some patients are experiencing:
McComsey noted that fatigue and muscle aches usually only last a couple of days, but that the congestion can sometimes last a few weeks. She also estimated that only around 10-20% of her newest COVID patients are losing their sense of smell or taste, whereas early in the pandemic that number was closer to 60-70% of her patients.
Doctors also noted that fewer patients are requiring hospitalization and that many recover without the use of antivirals or other treatments.
“Especially since July, when this recent mini-surge started, younger people that have upper respiratory symptoms—cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever and chills—99% of the time they go home with supportive care,” said Michael Daignault, MD, an emergency physician at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California.
Milder SARS-CoV-2 Variants Should Still be Taken Seriously
Doctors have varying opinions regarding why the current COVID-19 variants are milder. Some believe the recent variants simply aren’t as good at infecting the lungs as previous variants.
“Overall, the severity of COVID-19 is much lower than it was a year ago and two years ago,” Dan Barouch, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told NBC News. “That’s not because the variants are less robust. It’s because the immune responses are higher.”
McComsey added that she doesn’t think mild cases should be ignored as she is still seeing new cases of long COVID with rapid heart rate and exercise intolerance being among the most common lingering symptoms. Re-infections also add to the risks associated with long COVID.
“What we’re seeing in long COVID clinics is not just the older strains that continue to be symptomatic and not getting better—we’re adding to that number with the new strain as well,” McComsey said. “That’s why I’m not taking this new wave any less seriously.”
Clinical Laboratory COVID-19 Testing May Decrease
According to Andrew Read, PhD, Interim Senior Vice President for Research and Evan Pugh University Professor of Biology and Entomology at Pennsylvania State University, there is nothing unexpected or startling about the coronavirus acquiring new mutations.
“When a mutation confers an interesting new trick that’s got an advantage, it’s going to be popping up in many different places,” Read told the New York Times. “Everything we see is just consistent with how you imagine virus evolution proceeding in a situation where a new virus has jumped into a novel host population.”
Study suggests AI-enabled technology can help clinical laboratories and hospital blood banks save thousands of dollars annually on expensive blood products
Artificial intelligence may prove to be a useful tool in helping hospitals better manage utilization of blood products. That’s one conclusion from a newly-published study done at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. If so, this is a technology improvement that would be welcomed by blood bankers and clinical laboratory managers who must manage the cost and utilization of blood products.
There’s no way around it—blood is expensive. A typical 400- to 600-bed hospital likely budgets upwards of one million dollars annually just for blood products. Almost universally, in hospitals the medical laboratory manages the blood bank. This is where medical technologists trained in blood banking test patients and test blood to ensure whole blood units, or other blood products such as platelets, match and will not trigger a negative reaction when administered to the patient.
When left unmanaged, the cost and utilization of blood bank
products can put the budgets of hospital medical laboratories in the red. Hospitals
also invest a great deal of money training surgeons to accurately assess the
procedure and order the correct amount of blood components prior to surgery.
Therefore, new artificial intelligence (AI) technology that helps pinpoint patients’ blood loss during childbirth will be of interest to blood bankers and hospital laboratory administrators.
Can AI Help Clinical Labs Improve Utilization of Blood Products
Physicians at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai recently investigated whether “Quantifying blood loss” would improve the use of blood during human childbirth. They published the results of their study in the International Journal of Obstetric Anesthesia.
Their research into 7,618 deliveries (vaginal and cesarean) involved “An observational study comparing blood loss, management, and outcomes between two historical cohorts (August 2016 to January 2017 and August 2017 to January 2018) at an academic tertiary care center. Patients in the intervention group (second period) had blood loss quantified compared with visual estimation for controls,” the research paper notes.
The researchers concluded that “Quantifying blood loss may
result in increased vigilance for vaginal and cesarean delivery. We identified
an association between quantifying blood loss and improved identification of
postpartum hemorrhage, patient management steps, and cost savings.”
The researchers, according to a press release, employed the Triton AI-enabled platform from Gauss Surgical, a silicon valley-based health technology company, to “monitor blood loss in all deliveries (vaginal and cesarean, n=3807) at Mount Sinai Hospital from August 2017 through January 2018 to support the institution’s stage-based hemorrhage protocol.”
The researchers found that use of a monitoring system was
associated with earlier postpartum hemorrhage
intervention and annual cost savings of $172,614 in lab costs and $36,614 in blood
Measuring Blood Loss: The Eye versus AI
Gauss has secured Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance for Triton and more than 50 US hospitals are using it. Triton provides, in real-time, images of blood-saturated surgical sponges and canisters and uses computer vision and machine learning to pinpoint blood loss, reported MD+DI.
Traditionally, physicians visually estimate blood loss
during procedures. When they are off in their estimates of postpartum
hemorrhage, harmful postpartum health complications and deaths can occur, the
Mount Sinai researchers explained in their paper.
And although other vital signs—heart rate, rhythm, blood
pressure, oxygen level, etc.— are monitored with equipment in the surgical
suite, blood usage is not.
“Blood loss in surgery has been an enigma for decades since the dawn of medicine,” Siddarth Satish, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gauss, told MD+DI. “We monitor many other vital signs in surgery, but ultimately there hasn’t been any direct indicator of a patient’s hemoglobin loss.”
Bleeding Better Recognized, Less Blood Transfusions
After the Mount Sinai researchers used the Triton system to
monitor blood loss during 3,807 vaginal and cesarean deliveries from August
2017 to January 2018 at Mount Sinai Hospital, they compared their findings to
3,811 deliveries from August 2016 to January 2017, during which doctors relied
solely on visual estimation of blood loss.
The study found the following, according to the news
Improved hemorrhage recognition in vaginal deliveries of 2.2% and cesarean sections of 12.6% compared to .5% and 6.4%, respectively;
Less blood transfusions needed (vaginal patients): 47% with Triton compared to 71%;
Reduced blood transfusion dose (cesarean section): 1.90 units with Triton compared to 2.52 units;
Cost savings: $209,228 a year (the total of aforementioned lab and blood bank costs).
Possible New Resource for Hospital Medical Laboratories
So, will AI quickly become an omnipresent overseer in surgical suites? Hardly. However, AI is in the early stages of finding places in healthcare where it can be useful. “A lot of people are predicting that AI will play a huge role in healthcare … I think it’ll be ever-present. There will be a little bit of AI in everything you’re doing, but I think the actual practice of medicine in its truest form is going to carry forward,” Satish told Fierce Healthcare.
Hospital medical laboratories and blood blanks looking for
new tools to manage blood use may want to look into AI-enabled systems like
Triton. Saving money is not the only benefit. Less transfused blood is better
for patient care as well.
Clinical laboratories and microbiologists will want to be on the alert for this deadly infectious agent that has killed patients through blood infections
Healthcare continues to struggle with the issue of how much to disclose to the public when new and deadly infectious agents are identified in a limited number of patients. Timely disclosure of new pathogens is a matter of great concern to clinical laboratory scientists, microbiologists, and clinical pathologists because their laboratories get specimens from infected patients and they must correctly identify rare or emerging pathogens to help minimize the spread of disease.
This is why many medical laboratory professionals were surprised to see national news headlines recently about a particularly deadly new form of a pathogen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been dealing with one particularly nasty example of Candida auris, or C. auris. This “superbug” fungus has been appearing in hospitals and healthcare clinics across the globe and it has killed people.
The news coverage of C. auris focused on two
First, how the pathogen was recognized by such
healthcare agencies as the CDC.
Second, why CDC and others did not issue a
public alert to hospitals, physicians, and other caregivers once it was known
that C. auris was responsible for the death of several patients.
Once C. auris takes hold, it can enter a patient’s bloodstream or wounds and cause life- threatening complications like sepsis. When hospitals rooms are not properly decontaminated, life-threatening hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), also known as nosocomial infections, can occur.
Incidences of HAIs have been on the rise in the past few
years. Dark Dailyhas reported
on this disturbing trend many times.
The New York Times (NYT) reported on one such HAI that had tragic consequences. A patient admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for abdominal surgery was later discovered to have contracted C. auris. He was immediately isolated and spent 90 days in the hospital before passing away. Tests showed that Candida auris was everywhere in his room.
“Everything was positive—the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump,” Scott Lorin, MD, President and Chief Operating Officer at Mount Sinai Brooklyn Hospital, told the NYT. “The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive,” he said.
The hospital had to use special cleaning equipment to
sterilize the room and even found it necessary to tear out some ceiling and
floor tiles to annihilate the fungus, the NYT reported.
Media News Coverage of ‘Culture of Secrecy’
When this deadly fungus first emerged in America, it was not
disclosed to the public for a lengthy period of time. Then, when details of
deaths in hospitals due to the superbug went public, the national news media
reacted but then went silent. Why?
In that article, the NYT states that “under its
agreement with states, the CDC is barred from publicly identifying hospitals
that are battling to contain the spread of dangerous pathogens.” So, the CDC is
prevented from revealing to the public the names and locations of facilities
that are dealing with C. auris. And state governments typically do not
share that information either.
The NYT article also states, “The CDC declined to
comment, but in the past officials have said their approach to confidentiality
is necessary to encourage the cooperation of hospitals and nursing homes, which
might otherwise seek to conceal infectious outbreaks.”
And that, “Those pushing for increased transparency say they
are up against powerful medical institutions eager to protect their
reputations, as well as state health officials who also shield hospitals from
Common Yeast Infection or Killer Superbug? Both!
C. auris grows as a common yeast infection. However,
it can be life threatening if it enters the bloodstream.
“The average person calls Candida infections yeast infections,” William Schaffner, MD, Professor and Chair, Department of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Prevention. “However, Candida auris infections are much more serious than your standard yeast infection. They’re a variety of so-called superbugs [that] can complicate the therapy of very sick people.”
The CDC reports that, as of May 31, 2019, there have been a total of 685 cases of C. auris reported in the US. The majority of those cases occurred in Illinois (180), New Jersey (124), and New York (336). Twenty more cases were reported in Florida, and eight other states—California, Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia—each had less than 10 confirmed cases of C. auris.
The CDC states the infection seems to be most prominent among populations that have had extended stays in hospitals or nursing facilities. Patients who have had lines or tubes such as breathing tubes, feeding tubes, or central venous catheters entering their body, and those who have recently been given antibiotics or antifungal medications, seem to be the most vulnerable to contracting C. auris.
The fungus typically attacks people who are already sick or have weakened immune systems, which can make it challenging to diagnose, the CDC notes. C. auris infections are typically diagnosed with special clinical laboratory testing of blood specimens or other body fluids. Infections have been found in patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly.
Data from the CDC indicates that C. auris can cause
bloodstream infections, wound infections, and ear infections. Common symptoms
that indicate a person has Candida auris include fever, chills,
weakness, low blood pressure, and general malaise that do not improve with
“A patient’s temperature may go up, their blood pressure can
go down, and they have complications of a pre-existing illness because of Candida
auris,” Schaffner told Prevention.
The CDC reports that more than one in three patients with
invasive C. auris dies. Even though the mortality rates for Candida
auris are high, it is unclear whether patients are dying from the infection
or from their underlying illnesses. “Whatever the cause, having Candida
auris doesn’t help a patient in any way,” Schaffner noted.
The CDC states that it and its public health partners are
working hard to discover more about this fungus, and to devise ways to protect
people from contracting it. Average healthy people probably don’t need to worry
about becoming infected with Candida auris. However, individuals who are
at high risk, and healthcare professionals, microbiologists, and pathologists,
should be on the alert for this new superbug strain of fungus.
This secretive start-up medical laboratory testing company has not disclosed how its diagnostic test technology works, nor has it given laboratorians an opportunity to examine the technology
Several internationally-respected clinical laboratory experts are asking serious questions about Theranos and its diagnostic testing technology, and they’ve gotten few answers to date. Though the number of experts is small, their credentials in the clinical laboratory profession are impressive. In addition, some have published their critiques of the start-up medical laboratory company in well-respected medical journals.
One question these clinical pathologists and laboratory directors ask is why Theranos has so far been unwilling to provide more information about the lab testing technology it uses to deliver medical laboratory test results to patients and their referring physicians. Even as the company has declined to speak to the medical laboratory profession, Theranos has mounted a major public relations campaign designed to make a big impression on investors, business partners, and most recently on health insurers.
The clinical laboratory company in Palo Alto, Calif., gets plenty of attention because it claims to have disruptive technology that will allow it to perform medical laboratory tests equivalent to the current standard of care. Theranos says it can do this using a capillary specimen and return results in four hours, while charging a price that is just 50% of Medicare Part B lab test fees. Given these assertions, it is natural that pathologists and laboratory scientists who perform tests for patients, are curious about the scientific basis of Theranos’ proprietary diagnostic technology and what evidence Theranos has developed to support its claims of comparable accuracy and reproducibility. (more…)
Researchers, including pathologists, can use Apple’s ResearchKit app to help collect and share genetic information about cancers and other diseases while building a huge genome database
By providing tools to allow users to be more productive in working with healthcare big data, several Silicon Valley giants hope to increase their presence in medical services. The latest company to enter the field is Apple Computers (NASDAQ:AAPL). In March it announced the availability of ResearchKit, an open-source software framework that turns the iPhone into a research tool.
Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists have a stake in the healthcare big data trend, since more than 70% of the typical patient’s permanent medical record consists of medical laboratory test data. Thus, the products introduced by Apple, Google, and other Silicon Valley firms that are designed to help physicians and other professionals work with healthcare big data have the potential to transform the way value is harvested from these data sets.
Apple’s strategy is to support researchers. Its ResearchKit is designed to be an open-source software framework that turns the iPhone into a research tool. It enables development of apps that help medical researchers recruit study subjects and collect health information through iPhone’s sensors and surveys. Because it is an open-source platform, researchers also can create apps for Android and Windows devices. (more…)