Neurosurgeons never stop learning. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, previously obscure terms such as airflow and aerosolization — the dispersal of a substance such as medicine or viral particles in the form of an aerosol — have entered our regular lexicon. We can now readily identify which of our operating rooms has the highest airflow — usually the smallest room — and the standard for the minimum number of air exchanges per hour, which is at least 15.
COVID-19 has brought to light a new spectrum of difficulties for neurosurgeons. Of particular concern are increasing reports of significant morbidity and mortality among otolaryngologists in several countries that have been putatively linked to endonasal surgery. Patel and coworkers from Stanford University highlighted this issue in a letter to the editor in Neurosurgery. They urge precautions for endoscopic transnasal skull base surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the concern that aerosol droplets coming from surgery may increase the possibility of infection of medical staff in the operating room.
In a reply, Huang and colleagues from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, were able to provide additional information regarding COVID-19 spread. They believe that compared to droplet transmission, contact transmission may be an equally important factor in transmission in medical workers and was ignored during the early stages of the pandemic due to lack of knowledge. They urge washing hands and cleaning all surfaces in patient units and living areas.
The authors also share that they have learned that intraoperative aspirators, protective clothing, N95 masks and face shields can provide sufficient protection to our medical staff in the surgery room. Huang and colleagues warn that the claim that endonasal surgery will increase the possibility of infection of medical personnel in the operating room might provoke unnecessary anxiety toward endonasal endoscopic procedures based on an anecdotal statement.
Patel and collaborators in their rebuttal accept some of these arguments but point out that emerging evidence also points towards a high viral load within the nasal cavity. When performing endoscopic surgery, while working in and through this corridor, surgical maneuvers can aerosolize mucus particles along with the virus.
In a convergence of the scholarly debate, both groups arrive at similar recommendations with an emphasis on preoperative COVID-19 testing, which should be performed whenever possible. Reduced contact with infected patients and the use of personal protective equipment — including N95 masks, face shields and protective clothing — should be employed for all endoscopic cases and all involved personnel. Powered air-purifying respirator use should be encouraged in cases of symptomatic COVID-19-positive patients needing emergent endonasal surgery. A negative pressure operating room is also recommended. Elective endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery should be delayed, and consideration should be given to transcranial approaches for certain locations where possible.
We share the optimism for the future of endonasal surgery as more data comes to light to guide best practices that will maximize its benefit for our patients while minimizing potential risks to surgeons and other operating room personnel.
Editor’s note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. We invite you to be part of the conversation on Twitter by following and using the hashtag #COVID19.
Clemens M. Schirmer, MD, PhD, FAANS, FAHA
Chair, AANS/CNS Communications and Public Relations Committee
Wilkes Barre, PA