The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way we deliver healthcare for the foreseeable future. Not only have we had to rapidly learn how to evaluate, diagnose, and treat this new disease, we have also had to shift how we screen, triage, and care for other patients for both their safety and ours. As the virus is primarily spread via respiratory droplets, aerosol-generating procedures (AGP), such as bronchoscopy and tracheostomy, are high-risk for viral transmission. We have therefore had to reassess the risk/benefit ratio of performing these procedures – what is the risk to the patient by procedure postponement vs the risk to the health-care personnel (HCP) involved by moving ahead with the procedure? And, if proceeding, how should we protect ourselves? How do we screen patients to help us stratify risk? In order to answer these questions, we generally divide patients into three categories: the asymptomatic outpatient, the symptomatic patient, and the critically ill patient.
The asymptomatic outpatient
Early in the pandemic as cases began to spike in the US, many hospitals decided to postpone all elective procedures and surgeries. Guidelines quickly emerged stratifying bronchoscopic procedures into emergent, urgent, acute, subacute, and truly elective with recommendations on the subsequent timing of those procedures (Pritchett MA, et al.). As we have obtained further data and our infrastructure has been bolstered, many physicians have begun performing more routine procedures. Preprocedural screening, both with symptom questionnaires and nasopharyngeal swabs, has been enacted as a measure to prevent inadvertent exposure to infected patients. While there are limited data regarding the reliability of this measure, emerging data have shown good concordance between nasopharyngeal SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swabs and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) samples in low-risk patients (Oberg, et al. Personal communication, Sept 2020). Emergency procedures, such as foreign body aspiration, critical airway obstruction, and massive hemoptysis, were generally performed without delay throughout the pandemic. More recently, emphasis has been placed on prioritizing procedures for acute clinical diagnoses, such as biopsies for concerning lung nodules or masses in potentially early-stage patients, in those where staging is needed and in those where disease progression is suspected. Subacute procedures, such as inspection bronchoscopy for cough, minor hemoptysis, or airway stent surveillance, have generally been reintroduced while elective procedures, such as bronchial thermoplasty and bronchoscopic lung volume reduction, are considered elective, and their frequency and timing is determined mostly by the number of new cases of COVID-19 in the local community.
For all procedures, general modifications have been made. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters should be placed on all ventilatory circuits. When equivalent, flexible bronchoscopy is preferred over rigid bronchoscopy due to the closed circuit. Enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) for all procedures is recommended – this typically includes a gown, gloves, hair bonnet, N-95 mask, and a face shield. Strict adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for postprocedure cleaning and sterilization is strongly recommended. In some cases, single-use bronchoscopes are being preferentially used, though no strong recommendations exist for this.