I am writing this in mid-April, in time for our May issue. These are unusual times. During unusual times, people rise up and do unusual and exemplary things. I firmly believe in the ability of humans to rise to the occasion and step out of their boundaries and boxes when needed. And the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Our patients need us. The medical community needs us, and hematologists around the world have stepped up to help in any ways they can.
Since the beginning of the year with rumblings of the emergence of a novel SARs-CoV-2 virus in patients with influenza-like illness, the hematology community has banded together to figure out what this will mean for our patients battling malignant and nonmalignant blood disorders.
With very little published literature to go on, we have had to glean from our experience with the H1N1 influenza pandemic to develop a strategy to support hematology patients who may develop COVID-19 infection. With more questions than answers, institutions around the country and globally began to collaborate and communicate furiously with each other to learn from those who had experienced the effects of the virus before we had. We have been learning to anticipate blood supply changes, treatment modifications, and therapeutic needs for those who will inevitably get the virus.
Concern rose not just for the patients but also for the providers and clinical team who care for the hematology patients. How do we preserve and protect our workforce? A pandemic does not prevent new-diagnosis leukemia or myelodysplastic syndrome blast crisis from presenting as usual at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Who is at highest risk among the staff? If we practice social distancing what does that look like in a hematology clinic, in an infusion room? Or on the stem cell transplant in-patient unit? So many questions with minimal scientific evidence to guide our decisions.
As a sickle cell disease (SCD) specialist, I had some unique concerns. Roughly 10%-15% of the sickle cell population in the United States are supported by monthly red blood cell exchange transfusions, a lifesaving therapy to prevent recurrent stroke and to manage severe end organ damage. The vast majority of patients are on some disease-modifying therapy that requires ongoing lifelong monitoring of hematologic parameters, as well as renal and hepatic function. Most SCD patients also are members of racial minorities, live in densely populated parts of the city, and have significant social determinants of health that make adherence to social distancing mandates near impossible.
Frequent exposure to acute care for painful exacerbations of their disease, preexisting comorbidities involving the lung, heart, and kidney, and their underlying cellular and humoral immune dysfunction also put our patients at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 infection.
So how have we handled the COVID-19 pandemic thus far? We have engaged various partners, collaborators, and colleagues to figure things out. Our institutions have established incident command operations to supervise and guide bed management, staff deployment/redeployment, and the supply chain, particularly as regards personal protective equipment; and to support physician and staff wellness. Our administrative leaders have partnered seamlessly with clinical leaders to rapidly roll out robust telemedicine strategies so that we can continue to provide ongoing medical care as best we can.
We have worked tirelessly across disciplines to develop guidance documents that are specialty specific with ways to support disease populations working with the hospitalist and acute care units to define testing, treatment, and admission and discharge criteria. We have engaged communications teams that have developed health-literate public messaging for the patients and the community about coronavirus as well as the rapidly changing public health guidelines to help #flattenthecurve.
As providers, we have reviewed our patient panels to determine who can tolerate appointment delays and who has to come in to be seen with minimal impact to health outcomes. We have read more articles in the past month than perhaps the past year; listened to more podcasts, webinars, and virtual lectures on COVID-19 and strategies to halt spread of the virus – just trying to learn more. We have engaged in social media – following COVID-19 public and private groups – to get and to offer support, as well as keep a finger on the pulse of the health community around this pandemic.
For my SCD population, I have had to decide who can tolerate simple rather than exchange transfusions for the next 3-6 months and what is the minimum number of red cell units we can safely use per red cell exchange procedure as we prepare for a possible blood supply shortage. The hematology community has worked tirelessly with national societies and numerous stakeholder groups to develop a comprehensive toolkit with regularly updated information about COVID-19 relevant to the hematology community ().
At a practice level, we are proactively reaching out to our hematology patients and their families to reassure them and connect them with resources and support while ensuring that they have adequate supply of their daily hematology medications with tips like using the pharmacy drive-through or home medication delivery options. The past 2 weeks in Charlotte, N.C., have been hectic with preparation. My days are long; a mixture of telemedicine visits, strategic meetings, and meetings to cascade the newest plan to the staff so that they know and are comfortable with it for the patients they take care of.
When the adrenaline from each day begins to wane, we think of our individual families; we worry about relatives far and near. We mourn the loss of loved ones or other hematologists or providers who have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus. We take a minute to think about ourselves and how this pandemic affects us individually and personally. I think about my older sister who runs a smaller hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. She is at the epicenter of the pandemic and is short-staffed in the ICU and medicine floors. Because she is an ob.gyn, she has called me for guidance on a pregnant woman with anemia and sickle cell trait. I hadn’t heard from her in 24 hours and I began to wonder – is she okay? Why didn’t she answer my call this morning? Is she sick? Did she get the information I sent to her linking her with our virtual ICU experts so she can implement a similar program for her hospital?
Next, I think of my younger sister in Long Island, N.Y., who was covering shifts as a hospitalist. She had asked me to send her some hematology tips on managing disseminated intravascular coagulopathy in COVID-19 patients as she has limited access to consultants. She sees an average of seven to nine COVID-19–positive patients and several persons under investigation per shift.
I also think of my 76-year-old mom who is upset that she cannot go to the adult center because of social distancing. So, even though I am weary, I do a FaceTime call with mom. I try to explain why it’s important for her to stay indoors. It’s only temporary, I reassure her; but I cannot say how long “temporary” is.
I pack up my bags, change out of my scrubs to head to my car thinking of my daughter who just turned 21 years old and was so excited about her college graduation in May. She had a meltdown yesterday because her university announced there will be no in-person gradation. I wonder how I can help her see the big picture and yet, why should she? She’s only 21.
Then I get a page – it’s a patient with sickle cell disease – my first COVID-19–positive patient. As I take the history and turn my computer back on to do this consult, I realize that this is what all the preparation was for. The sickle cell guidance document we had worked on over the past weeks to outline a step-by-step approach to managing a SCD patient with COVID-19 that is intentionally aligned with our institutions COVID-19 treatment protocol with specific nuances relevant to patients with red blood cell disorders, was now being put to use. I felt glad for my patient that we were prepared and had a semblance of a plan on how to approach his care.
The battle is far from over. Actually, as of my writing this, it’s just starting in my part of the country. The days will continue to be long. I continue to appreciate the beauty of the human spirit among the people we work with, the hematology community we belong to, and the patients that we serve. I am committed (as are all of you) to staying “on-duty” for as long as I can, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say to all the hematologists out there – “Thank you for your service and for reporting for duty to the front lines.”
, is a professor of medicine and the director of the Sickle Cell Disease Enterprise at the Levine Cancer Institute, Atrium Health, Charlotte, N.C. She is the editor in chief of Hematology News.