Critical Values: The Burden, Promise and Realization of Virtual Interviews for Pathology Residency During a Pandemic

The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to cause increased infections and deaths around the world with considerable impact on clinical and laboratory medicine communities. Meanwhile, medical students and the medical community are also undertaking the yearly tribulation of residency interview season. Following the May announcement by the Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students,1 the 2020 interview season will be entirely conducted utilizing virtual interviews. In pointed response to this change in format, residency programs rapidly scrambled to bolster websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format prior to the start of interview season. Now, at the midpoint of interview season, it is evident that some burdens of traditional on-site interviews are indeed being alleviated. Whether or not online resident socials and virtual tours can sufficiently substitute for all aspects of on-site visits and if the promise of increased spread of geographic and cultural diversity can be realized remains to be accurately assessed. The survival of the virtual format may even depend on this assessment.

The average cost of traditional on-site pathology interviews has continued to increase for medical students from a per person average of $3400 in 2015 to $4000 in 2020.2 Much of this expense comes from travel/transportation while some pathology programs provided accommodations. Additionally, interview season required about 20 total days away from medical school. To cover these expenses, about half (49%) of medical students borrow money for interviews . Not surprisingly, the majority of them agree that travel (79%) and lodging (65%) are overly burdensome components of interview season.2 Beyond accounting, the salient impact of these time and financial investments is that they were influencing the majority (58%) of interview decisions.

While the rising time and financial burdens of traditional on-site residency interviews were well-known and there was and continues to be a myriad of ideas3 on how to best address these concerns and the match overall, a small burgeoning literature on virtual resident interviews was available prior to the pandemic that showed promise for addressing these concerns.4,5 That is, in the 2020 – 2021 residency interview season, medical students are estimated to spend about 3.5 hours on an average virtual interview day instead of the 8 hour day of a traditional interview and through the elimination of travel time they may spend 7 less days on the interview trail. Thus, the cost of interviewing is also projected to be skeletonized to that of necessary professional clothing and computer hardware. Additional promising data from this small body of research suggests that 85% of virtual interviewees were satisfied with their understanding of the program and their ability to present themselves to residency programs.6 Furthermore, the fact that the residency program’s rank list showed no significant impact based on whether candidates interviewed virtually or in-person suggests that residency programs may feel capable of fairly assessing candidates.7

Beyond time and financial savings for pathology residency applicants and the assessment of candidates by residency programs and vice versa, the measurability of additional outcomes may be critical to the continuation of virtual resident interviews. In particular, there is great interest in online social events and interview day resident panels as a sufficient substitute for the naturally evolving casual conversations that occur during the dinners, lunches and tours available with on-site visits. Also, whether or not these socials combined with interviews with a small subset of faculty can accurately portray a pathology residency program’s culture. In prior surveys that compared in-person, virtual or a combined approach to interviews, candidates always favored in-person assessment when given the choice. The present circumstance will perhaps be the best attempt at an unbiased assessment of the perception of culture through virtual interviews. Last but not least, given the turbulent nature of race relations and culture in the United States over the last year combined with the ability of applicants to virtually interview without travel or financial restrictions, it will be absolutely critical to understand if virtual interviews portend to increase the spread of geographic and cultural diversity among applicants to pathology residency programs. That is, if current trends in resident recruitment can be altered from the current rate of 40 – 60% intraregional resident matriculation or whether the needs of financial and family assistance and/or intraregional familiarity are insurmountable.8 For if the potential for greater diversity is attainable in a significant manner that can be perpetuated into the future, it will be hard to argue for a return to the traditional format. That said, there will likely be bias in the data as an increasing number of pathology residency programs have heard the call to arms and are marching towards diversity, inclusion and equity through greater promotion, recruitment and retention efforts.9

In a tumultuous year that has included race relations reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era combined with a total number of worldwide pandemic deaths similar to the 1957 or 1968 influenza pandemics, medicine continues its steady progression toward improved healthcare and education for all. Following the May 2020 recommendations to implement virtual residency interviews, pathology residency programs moved expeditiously to bolster their websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format. Amid this tumult, the virtual interview format has already served to lessen the burdens of time and cost while also serving the practical needs of interview assessments for both medical students and residency programs. Yet, only time and methodical assessment will tell if the virtual interview format eliminates the impact of these burdens on residency decisions, allows both parties to adequately assess cultural fit and if the format and its advantages are here to stay. Regardless, it is imperative that the emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity remains irrespective of future format.

References

  1. The Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students in the Class of 2021 Moving Across Institutions for Post Graduate Training Final Report and Recommendations for Medical Education Institutions of LCME-Accredited, U.S. Osteopathic, and Non-U.S. Medical School Applicants.
  2. Pourmand, A., Lee, H., Fair, M., Maloney, K. & Caggiula, A. Feasibility and usability of tele-interview for medical residency interview. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine 19, 80–86 (2018).
  3. Hammoud, M. M., Andrews, J. & Skochelak, S. E. Improving the Residency Application and Selection Process: An Optional Early Result Acceptance Program. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association 323, 503–504 (2020).
  4. Chandler, N. M., Litz, C. N., Chang, H. L. & Danielson, P. D. Efficacy of Videoconference Interviews in the Pediatric Surgery Match. J. Surg. Educ. 76, 420–426 (2019).
  5. Vining, C. C. et al. Virtual Surgical Fellowship Recruitment During COVID-19 and Its Implications for Resident/Fellow Recruitment in the Future. Ann. Surg. Oncol. 1 (2020). doi:10.1245/s10434-020-08623-2
  6. Healy, W. L. & Bedair, H. Videoconference Interviews for an Adult Reconstruction Fellowship: Lessons Learned. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery – American Volume 99, E114 (2017).
  7. Vadi, M. G. et al. Comparison of web-based and face-to-face interviews for application to an anesthesiology training program: a pilot study. Int. J. Med. Educ. 7, 102–108 (2016).
  8. Shappell, C. N., Farnan, J. M., McConville, J. F. & Martin, S. K. Geographic Trends for United States Allopathic Seniors Participating in the Residency Match: a Descriptive Analysis. J. Gen. Intern. Med. 34, 179–181 (2019).
  9. Ware, A. D. et al. The “Race” Toward Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Pathology: The Johns Hopkins Experience. Acad. Pathol. 6, (2019).

-Josh Klonoski, MD, PhD, is a chief resident at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, with a focus in neuroinfectious disease and global health. He has completed the first year of a neuropathology fellowship (out of sequence) and is in his final year of an anatomical and clinical pathology residency. Dr. Klonoski will return to the second neuropathology fellowship year in 2021 – 2022 and apply for a mentored clinical scientist research career development award (K08). The focus of his laboratory research is influenza and active projects include flu pneumonia, super-infections, encephalitis and oncolytic virotherapy.

What to Expect When You Don’t Know What You’re Expecting: COVID-19 and Flu Season in the Laboratory

Welcome to October 2020 and a flu season unlike any other. What can we expect? Well, it’s complicated. And if we aren’t sure what to expect, can we still be prepared? Yes (at least for some things)!

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout the summer of 2020 clinicians and laboratorians have been anxiously wondering what effect global presence of respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2 would have on the 2020-2021 flu season. “Flu season,” the annual, relatively predictable period of increased cases and deaths due to Influenza A and B, occurs during colder, winter months. In the northern hemisphere this is September through March. We have extensive experience tracking the onset and genetic variability of the predominant influenza viruses. We manufacturer flu vaccines based on data of potentially likely influenza strains. Other viruses that cause respiratory symptoms follow similar seasonal patterns. These include common (non-SARS-CoV-2) human coronaviruses, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). In short: this is a known, annual occurrence that we can usually prepare to some extent.

So what will that look like this year? During the historic 1918 pandemic influenza, deaths seen during the first winter of the outbreak paled in comparison to those seen the following winter. Even if that kind of terrible scenario doesn’t occur during this pandemic year, it is possible we are facing “perfect storm” of COVID-19 plus influenza resulting in overwhelmed hospitals and depleted testing supplies. [https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/09/fears-perfect-storm-flu-season-nears]

We know that COVID-19 spreads well in enclosed spaces with prolonged person-to-person contact, regardless of climate and temperature, via respiratory secretions. Because of this, there has been widespread adoption of mask wearing, social distancing, and limitations on in-person gathering. Promisingly, these interventions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 seem to be contributing to historically low influenza rates in the Southern Hemisphere! [https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6937a6.htm] But adoption of these mitigation strategies are not being universally or rigorously followed in all regions and communities. As temperatures drop, we could see more people conducting activity indoors – will this change transmission patterns? Will regions with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks be more prone to influenza as well? If hospital capacity becomes strained, will criteria for ordering tests change?

During COVID-19 laboratories have responded heroically and rapidly to test kit shortages, supply chain issues, and staffing challenges. At this stage (October of 2020) many high-level decisions about SARS-CoV-2 testing, like test platform purchasing and validation or manufacturer test kit allocations, might already be set in stone. So is there anything that can be done to help labs and laboratory workers successfully make it through flu season?

Here are 3 suggestions:

1) Establish testing algorithms and clear sample workflows.

Each facility and laboratory will have their own platforms for testing COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens. Depending on the service ordering the test, there can be both immediate and downstream consequences for when a test comes back positive, negative, or even when that test result is slower than expected!

An algorithm helps set institutional expectations for what tests are ordered under different scenarios. For example symptomatic patients presenting to a hospital with influenza-like illness (ILI), especially when they will be admitted, should likely have both SARS-CoV-2 and influenza tests ordered simultaneously. But asymptomatic patients being admitted for procedures may only require a SARS-CoV-2 test.

Let’s say your lab has both a SARS-CoV-2 PCR test and SARS-CoV-2 rapid antigen test. But due to risk a false negative, lab and clinical leaders are uncomfortable using only a rapid antigen test to conclusively rule out COVID-19 in patients being admitted to the hospital. Your algorithm could use specify the use of SARS-CoV-2 antigen testing in symptomatic patients to quickly “rule in” potential positives, where antigen-negative patients will also have a PCR test. Algorithm specifics come down to what your institutions stake holders (clinical AND laboratory) need and capacity are. The details of an algorithm will be dependent on your lab test platforms, your available test orders, and may need to be modified to accommodate restricted test allocations.

Along with clinical algorithms, clear workflow for specimens and test types can help laboratory workers get tests where they need to go within the lab. Not all SARS-CoV-2 tests have approval in the instructions for use for, say, nasal swabs. If nasal swab comes to the lab with orders for both influenza and SARS-CoV-2 tests, what is the procedure for informing the floor for an appropriate collection? Or say that your test platforms for different tests live in different areas of the lab. Your workflow may be to set up one test and do a pour off into an aliquot tube so tests can be run at the same time. Or you may have sufficient test collection materials to request a separate sample for each test.

Probably the most important part of developing or reviewing your existing algorithms and laboratory workflow is doing it in connection with others. The purpose is to streamline the entire process from clinical decision making to test performing and reporting and help everyone be on the same page.

2) Communicate to clinical staff frequently about your tests.

Because of the intense interest surrounding COVID-19 laboratory testing, it’s entirely possible that more people have had to learn about previously niche laboratory concepts like “sensitivity vs. specificity” and “PCR vs. antibody vs. antigen tests” than at any previously time in human history! However, it is also likely that many clinicians or administrators in your own institution may know more about a test platform they read about in the news than the COVID-19 test platform that their laboratory performs.

Even at this stage in the pandemic with perhaps more exposure (pun not intended!) then the laboratory has ever had, miscommunication and unclear expectations abound surrounding test performance or turnaround times.

Whenever possible, lab leaders who interact with clinicians and administrators should look for ways to educate on test platforms, testing capacity, and expected test performance (i.e. time to result, comparative sensitivity etc.). This could include asking for time to provide formal updates during monthly meetings, monitoring test statistics (e.g. a test “dashboard”), or just informal reminders about what tests the lab performs during phone calls.

3) Keep the lab staff off the phone.

A critical part of the job of the lab is to provide information and updates on when test results are available. But when the hospital floors or clinics are busiest with patients, often the lab is busiest performing those patients’ tests. A phone call about the status of a respiratory virus test can be undeniably helpful to that patient’s clinical care team! But a dozen such phone calls over the course of a lab worker’s shift, especially under normal lab conditions (e.g. no staff shortages or instrument issues) is a failure of communication and can be detrimental to both lab performance and lab worker wellbeing.

In addition to the need for regular education about testing mentioned above, to help protect your lab staff’s bench time here are some possible ways keep from being overwhelmed with phone calls:

  • In some institutions, passive reminders (for example about hand hygiene or upcoming events) cycle through computer screen savers or on television screens in clinical areas. You could see if a message like “Reminder from the lab: COVID-19 tests are completed in [length of time].” could be put on a rotation.
  • If there is no client service or switchboard for your lab, but people call the lab directly for updates, you could institute a message stop. This is where phone calls routed to the laboratory must listen to a reminder that (for example), “If you are calling for an update of a COVID-19 test, these tests cannot be completed faster than [length of time] after arriving in the lab.”

    While these messages can be undeniably annoying and disruptive for people calling the lab for other reasons (and become less effective over time) if phone calls get out of hand, this option could be considered.
  • A lab instrument going down can result in test backlogs and numerous phone calls to the lab. Some institutions centralize their information in the form of a duty officer (for example in the emergency department). This will be a person who can be informed of actionable information, like test delays due to instrument issues, and who will post and distribute that information to those affected.

There is a lot we don’t know about what’s to come in the COVID-19 pandemic. While we can’t predict the ways the lab may be challenged with the next unforeseen disruption, or even what our flu season testing needs may look like, hopefully we can prepare now to continue to support our patients by helping and supporting our labs.

-Dr. Richard Davis, PhD, D(ABMM), MLS(ASCP)CM is a clinical microbiologist and regional director of microbiology for Providence Health Care in Eastern Washington. A certified medical laboratory scientist, he received his PhD studying the tropical parasite Leishmania. He transitioned back to laboratory medicine (though he still loves parasites!), and completed a clinical microbiology fellowship at the University of Utah/ARUP Laboratories in Utah before accepting his current position. He is a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.

Casualties of COVID-19: Measuring the Length, Width, and Depth of a Pandemic’s Impact

An editorial in Nature on August 12, 2020 entitled, “How to stop COVID-19 fuelling a resurgence of AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis” provided four suggested solutions specifically for these diseases in the wake of Sars-CoV-2. For reference, here are the four approaches suggested as written in the editorial (#4 in detail):

  1. Hospitals and health authorities in affected cities and regions must recognize that AIDS, malaria and TB are surging again.
  2. Researchers must continue to refine their models using more real-world data.
  3. There is a need for public-information campaigns
  4. These campaigns cannot on their own keep surgeries and wards open, or equipment functioning. The resurgence of infectious diseases has created a greater demand for tests, treatments and research. All of these need more funding. 

Do those strike you as odd? The entire economy of nations along with the focus of their healthcare has been derailed and distracted by COVID-19 and the solution for these diseases is to recognize them, improve models, inform the public and seek more funding. You are either completely in tuned with the author in seeing that more funding is needed or you are a bit miffed that, in the wake of all that is happening, THESE guys want more money?

The US is a major contributor to the Global Fund for HIV, TB, and Malaria (the largest funder of these activities) and the total pledges to date for the GF approach $69 billion dollars with the US providing $54 billion (92%). From 2008 to 2016, the US contribution increased almost every year from $840 million to $1.65 billion annually until 2015 when it was frozen at $1.35 billion until 2019. In 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e., during calendar year 2019 when the fiscal year 2020 budget was being planned), the amount from the US dropped to $958 million (2010 levels), representing a 30% drop in funding. So, to recap: The Global Fund started the year down by nearly 30% of what had been available, COVID-19 derailed all activities and drained the fiscal resources of patients and nations, and now, the progress that has been made on these diseases has been set back bay possibly a decade. The situation couldn’t be more desperate and, YES, the program needs a massive increase in funding. But, to be very clear, that massive increase pre-dated COVID-19 and represents something more distressing underneath.

I was fortunate to give the Michelle Rablais lecture at the ASCP Annual Meeting in Phoenix in 2019 where I carefully laid out the costs of controlling JUST malaria (not to mention TB and HIV) and demonstrated for the audience that as the number of cases get smaller and smaller (because your measures are so successful), the cost of finding the remaining cases goes up. As we successfully approach elimination or eradication of a disease, the final push requires at least the same but often more funding to make it across the finish line. This is not an opinion but is based on an enormous amount of data from other diseases as well as from the world’s experience with the first malaria eradication campaign. For HIV, we can’t eliminate it or eradicate it but we have converted it to a chronic disease and, therefore, infrastructure and funding to support patients ongoing is needed and by any form of math has to increase as the population lives longer and more people are added to the disease pool (although those numbers had been greatly reducing). Tuberculosis in its simplest form is a disease of poverty related to lack of access to drugs and healthcare, cramped living conditions, etc. When a pandemic derails the economy and causes the poor to become even more poor, tuberculosis is going to surge.

To the authors of this editorial I offer a gracious thank you and note with a heavy heart that the estimate of $28.5 billion additional dollars being needed to make up the ground lost by COVID-19 does also include the ground they had already lost by defunding principles trending over the last 4 years for global health.

But at least the countries that struggle with these diseases only have HIV, TB, and malaria to worry about, right? Wrong. In almost every low- to middle-income country where HIV, TB, and malaria are or have been major health challenges, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and mental health are equivalent or worse health problems than compared with high income countries. Do not be dissuaded by sheer numbers and always consider the outcomes, pre-COVID-19. For cancer, mortality in the US averages around 35% while in Africa it is closer to 80%. In full COVID-19 response mode, cancer programs—fledgling, underfunded, and disorganized—became non-existent and are only now (nearly 6 months after closing) starting to re-open and find their way back to where they were—fledgling, underfunded, and disorganized! Diabetics cannot go 6 months without insulin, hypertensive patients cannot have unregulated blood pressure, etc. While in the safety of a high-income country, makeshift systems, telehealth, contactless visits, etc. were brought on board to keep some semblance of a healthcare system in place, cancer patients were delayed in receiving diagnoses and treatment due to rationing of time and elimination of “elective” procedures.

As the data continues to be tallied and as models continue to be developed to understand just how much we have lost from our failed response to COVID-19 as a world and certainly as a nation, please do not slough off the staggering “additional” deaths that are going to be reported because of patients who didn’t have access to their regular health system. Every person from November 2019 until the end of this pandemic whose death occurred because their regular supply lines were disrupted, their planned treatments were cancelled, their medical supplies were not available, or their access to life-saving interventions were delayed is just as much a casualty from COVID-19 as a directly infected patient who succumbs to the disease. Our recent experience as a nation with the disasters in Puerto Rico around both the confusing death tolls from the hurricanes as well as the total death toll from the fiscal challenges of their medical system (prior to COVID-19) should serve as valuable lessons. Let us not come out of the other side of this pandemic with a similar disregard for the value of every human life or without an understanding of how our individual and collective mistakes as a nation have lead directly to these effects.

milner-small


-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

Massive COVID-19 Testing: 30 Million Tests/Week

Population COVID-19 testing

Population-wide testing to identify symptomatic and asymptomatic infections could be a powerful tool to control Coronvirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread, but current global testing capacity does not permit widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals. These tests are still limited to individuals who are symptomatic with limited availability to those with recent exposure to an infected person.

Because of the high prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections, proposals from the Rockefeller Foundation for disease mitigation include widespread and frequent testing of the US population. In the United States, diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19 is currently >2 million per week. Estimates for US testing needs for population wide surveillance range from 30 to 300 million per week. In order to scale testing by an order of magnitude, novel technologies and rethinking current testing paradigms are needed. The NIH has initiated a rapid funding program to develop SARS-CoV-2 testing, and these new technologies may play a part. However, we can broadly conceptualize key problems to address in population-wide testing in the US. The first is high-sensitivity testing which identifies active infection and can be performed with massive throughput. The second is the logistics of gathering hundreds of thousands of samples to each testing laboratory each day.

Next Generation Solutions to COVID testing

Emerging technologies using targeted next-generation sequencing have been suggested as a potential solution to population-wide testing. The key features include 1) extraction free amplification 2) an easily collected specimen such as saliva, 3) nucleotide barcodes to enable sample pooling, and 4) a limited number of targets (to allow deeper sequencing, i.e. higher sensitivity). Illumina is selling a whole genome test for SARS-CoV-2, but this limits sequencing to 3,000 tests/ run. Another recent approval for a private testing lab uses only one target, and may allow it to increase to 100,000 tests/ day. And a recent protocol for LAMP-Seq in pre-print outlines how this could work in a scheme below. An attractive aspect of this approach is decentralized specimen processing.

Whereas Bill Gates has supported a portfolio approach to vaccines placing multiple bets on different processes in parallel, a similar approach should be applied to multiplexed sequencing methods. Two sequencing runs can be performed on a single instrument in a single day, which can process several thousand samples. However, sequencing is not the only step in sequencing; library preparation and specimen handling take significant amounts of time too.

Laboratory Logistics

This technology would represent an exponential expansion in analytic testing capacity, but clinical labs will require a similar escalation in logistic capacity. The largest clinical laboratories in the world process less than 100,000 samples per day. Clinical laboratories have a long history of automation with the first robotic specimen track systems developed in the 1980s. Engineering and clinical lab expertise should thus partner to innovate on methods to handle high volumes. This level of investment for an issue that is likely to fade in 2 years, is not attractive to most private health systems, so public investment from multiple states in regional reference labs is needed.

It is still hard to conceive the necessary scale up in sample processing can be achieve within the time frame needed, so I would also propose a de-centralized sample processing approach. This would include self-collection of saliva (a safe, effective sample type with similar sensitivity as nasopharyngeal swabs), drop-off sites, and processing at places like Pharmacies (>90% of Americans live within 5 miles of a pharmacy and they could be authorized to administer tests- just as they administer vaccines). This would introduce pre-analytic problems, but if the goal is frequent and high rates of testing, then we will have to accept certain losses in sensitivity (which currently is arguably better than it needs to be). Interestingly, pre-analytic concerns with saliva have not led to sample instability or degradation of RNA causing false negatives, as described in my last post. However, other factors could affect saliva quality: smoking, age, and genetic factors of water: protein ratio affecting viscosity.

Testing solutions should be considered in the context of the planned testing network. The specimen type should be easy for the patient to provide, processed with existing laboratory equipment and resulted electronically. For example, current COVID-19 testing is based on sample collections requiring a healthcare worker encased in personal protective equipment (PPE) utilizing a swab device. Testing needs to progress to a simpler solution such as saliva which can be collected by the patient in the absence of a swab or PPE. Preliminary studies have demonstrated that saliva is sample type comparable to nasopharyngeal swab. The ideal saliva sample would be collected into an existing collection tube type (e.g. red-top tubes) which are already compatible with existing laboratory automation. In aggregate, a person could spit into a tube at-home, have the tube sent to a laboratory, and in the laboratory the tube would be directly placed onto an automated robotic track system. 

Laboratory professionals need to provide a comprehensive plan for regional and national laboratory networks which can scale to provide overwhelming force to COVID-19 testing. No other profession or governmental organization understands testing as much as we do. Our understanding of managing samples from collection to result should be applied to the pandemic at hand. Until now most laboratorians in the US have focused on the immediate needs of providing testing for symptomatic patients and healthcare workers.

Vision for automated COVID-19 testing

One could envision an automated line of testing that moves samples through processing to allow multiplexing and combinations of samples to allow large numbers of patients to be tested at once (see below). This is feasible in some specialized centers, but would require investments in automation, bioinformatics, and interfaces for a seamless process (figure below). If testing mostly asymptomatic patients, it may also be possible to do this on pooled samples. The number of samples to pool would depend on the likelihood to having a positive result (this would require sequencing all individuals in a pool).

This represents a synthesis of ideas in decentralized specimen collection, laboratory automation and massive testing throughput with Next-Generation Sequencing, but unfortunately this is not yet a reality.

References

  1. Jonathan L. Schmid-Burgk et al. LAMP-Seq: Population-Sclae COVID-19 Diagnostics Using Combinatorial Barcoding. bioRxiv 2020.04.06.025635.
  2. The Rockefeller Foundation. National Covid-19 Testing Action Plan Pragmatic steps to reopen our workplaces and our communities. 2020.
  3. Cahill TJ, Cravatt B, Goldman LR, Iwasaki A, Kemp RS, Lin MZ et al. Scientists to Stop COVID-19.  OR Rob Copeland, Wall Street Journal (2020) The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for Covid-19. April 27
  4. https://www.illumina.com/products/by-type/ivd-products/covidseq.html

-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Chief Resident of Pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. His clinical research interests include understanding how the lab intersects with transgender healthcare and improving genetic variant interpretation.

The Story of the Mott Cell, COVID-19 and the Cute Little Mouse

I have worked in hematology for many years, and there are certain things that never fail to excite technologists. Working in New Hampshire, it was always exciting to sickle cells or malaria, something common to some, but not common in our patient population. I now work in Baltimore, and see sickle cells nearly every day, and we come across malaria not too infrequently, but we still share good examples and save them for training. When we see something different or unusual, we always share the finding. Cells may need to be sent to the pathologists for a pathology review, and we always check back to see the pathologist’s identification and comments. Medical Technologists by nature are a curious bunch, and we always want to see ‘cool’ things. I wrote a blog two years ago about the only patient I have ever seen with Trypanosoma (Hematology Case Study: The Race to Save a 48 Year Old Man from a Rare Disease). Last month I wrote about Blue-green cytoplasmic inclusions (COVID-19 Patients with “Green Crystals of …” STOP! Please Don’t Call Them That). So, when I saw something else ‘cool’ and different on a peripheral smear, and then saw it AGAIN, on another patient, and saw other techs here in the US and in other countries were also mentioning these, because it’s my nature, I got curious.

When I write these blogs, I often feel a little bit like the mouse in the children’s story “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, by Laura Joffe Numeroff. It’s about an adorable little mouse who asks for a cookie, and then decides he needs a glass of milk to go with it, and then he needs a straw, and it goes on and on, in a circle, back to the beginning. Maybe it’s that the mouse is a little ADD, but I like to believe that he’s just creative and curious. I start with an idea, and often go off on many tangents before a blog is finished and comes back to where I started.. When I started writing this, it was because I saw an interesting cell, and I started exploring, and found that others had seen them, too. Then I started looking through my textbooks for references and information, and searched for recent research or studies, and then I wanted to find out more… just like that mouse.

There are some things that we learn about in school and we may see on CAP surveys, but no matter where you work, they are still rarely seen, so are a novelty. Mott cells are one of these things. I have a collection of Hematology texts from grad school and years of teaching Hematology. Several of these don’t even mention Mott cells, but, when they do, it’s barely a sentence in a discussion of plasma cells. I happen to have a very old copy of Abbott Laboratories “The Morphology of Human Blood Cells” . The one with the red cover, from 1975. The term Mott cell does not appear in this manual, but they do show pictures and describe “Plasma cells with globular bodies (Grape, Berry or Morula cells)”, and describe these globules as “Russell bodies”.1 So some of us who have been working in the field for many years may remember Russell bodies and Morula cells, or Grape cells, even if the term Mott cell is not familiar. Regardless of what we or textbooks call them, they tend to trigger a memory because the images are so unique.

So, again, I’m a bit like that mouse and getting distracted with the background. Why am I writing this blog? In recent months I have seen cells identified as plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells in several hospitalized patients. I have heard reports of these cells in other facilities as well. So, like a good medical technologist, I got curious about Mott cells. What are they, and what is their significance? And why are we seeing more of these now?

Mott Cells are named after surgeon F.W. Mott. In the 1890’s, William Russell first observed these cells with grape like globular inclusions, but did not recognize what the inclusions were or their significance. Russell examined the cytoplasmic globular inclusions and assumed that these cells were fungi. Ten years later, Mott described cells he called morular cells. He recognized that these cells were plasma cells and the inclusions were indicative of chronic inflammation. Thus, today we refer to these cells as Mott cells, morular cells or grape cells, and the inclusions as Russell bodies.2

Hematology texts describe Mott cells as morphologic variations of plasma cells packed with globules called Russell bodies. We know that plasma cells produce immunoglobulin. When the plasma cells produce excessive amounts of immunoglobulin, and there is defective immunoglobulin secretion, it accumulates in the endoplasmic reticulum and golgi complex of the cells, forming Russell bodies. Russell bodies are eosinophilic, but in the staining process the globulin may dissolve and they therefore appear to be clear vacuoles in the cell under the microscope. Thus, a plasma cell with cytoplasm packed with these Ig inclusions is called a Mott cell.

Mott recognized that these atypical plasma cells were present in inflammation. Plasma cells are not typically seen on peripheral blood smears and constitute less than 4% of the cells in a normal bone marrow. Yet, on occasion, we can see plasma cells, including Mott cells, on peripheral blood smears in both malignant and non-malignant conditions. Mott cells are associated with stress conditions occurring in a number of conditions including chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, lymphomas, multiple myeloma, and Wiskott–Aldrich syndrome.3

So, why are we seeing an increased mention of Mott cells now? We seem to be seeing these on patients testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. I have seen cells on patients at my facility that resemble Mott cells. I belong to a Hematology Interest group and over the past few months I have seen several people post pictures of Mott cells, cells with Russell bodies, and plasmacytoid lymphocytes identified on peripheral blood smears of COVID-19 patients. Other techs chimed in with comments that they have also seen these cells recently. I have even seen a comment propose that these cells are indicative of COVID-19 infection.

SARS-CoV-2 definitely causes inflammatory processes and stress conditions in the body, so it makes sense that we may see these cells in COVID-19 positive patients.

Figure 1 shows a Mott cell on an image from Parkland Medical Center Laboratory, Derry, NH. A Mott cell was identified by pathologist in a male patient who tested negative for COVID-19 at the time the sample was drawn, and subsequently tested positive. Mariana Garza, a Medical Technologist working at Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, TX shared a case of a 59 year old diabetic male, diagnosed with COVID-19. The patient’s WBC was 31 x 103/μL. Two Mott cells were identified by pathologist on his differential. So, the curious little mouse in me researched some more.

Image 1. Mott cell. Photo courtesy Parkland Medical Center, Laboratory, Derry, NH.

Several published research papers have studied morphologic changes in peripheral blood cells in COVID-19 patients. As we now know, SARS-CoV-2 affects many organs including the hematopoietic and immune systems. A study in Germany showed that COVID-19 patients exhibited abnormalities in all cell lines; white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Increased WBC counts were seen in 41% of samples in their study. Differentials performed on study patients showed lymphocytopenia in 83%, and monocytopenia in 88%. Red blood cell morphology changes were noted. Platelet counts ranged from thrombocytopenia to thrombocytosis, but giant platelets were noted across the board.4

Mott cells are indicative of chronic inflammation and may have significance in association with COVID-1. In the above mentioned study, aberrant lymphocytes were noted in 81% of patients who were SARS-CoV-2 positive, and observable in 86% of the same patients after they tested negative. The paper shows plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells amongst these aberrant lymphocytes. Moreover, morphologic changes in neutrophils, such as a left shift and pseudo‐Pelger‐Huët anomaly, decreased after virus elimination but changes in lymphocytes, indicators of chronic infection, remained.4

Another study also reported reactive or plasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells observed in peripheral blood.4,5 Researchers at Northwick Park Hospital, UK, presented a case study of a 59 year old male with COVID-19 with a normal WBC and thrombocytosis. His differential revealed lymphocytopenia. His differential also showed lymphoplasmacytoid lymphocytes and Mott cells. In their conclusions it is stated that “In our experience, the lymphocyte features illustrated above are common in blood films of patients presenting to hospital with clinically significant Covid‐19. The observation of plasmacytoid lymphocytes supports a provisional clinical diagnosis of this condition.”5

Can these variant plasma cells, along with other commonly seen morphological changes, be used as part of a diagnostic algorithm for SARS-Cov-2 infection? As we see more COVID-19 patients there will be more, larger studies done and more Mott cells identified. Some disorders, such as Epstein Barr Virus and Dengue Fever are characterized by distinct viral changes in cells. However, since Mott cells can be seen in many conditions, these alone could not be considered diagnostic, but the indications are that these cells, along with the entire differential and morphological patterns, could prove to be a straightforward and easy to perform supplementary diagnostic tool. More, larger studies need to be done. It was concluded in the German study, that this pattern of morphologic changes in cells could be further investigated and validated with a larger blinded study, and that this information could lead to the development of a morphologic COVID‐19 scoring system.4 In the meantime, keep an eye out for Mott cells. These should not be ignored and should be in some way noted because they may be of future diagnostic use. That’s all or now, folks! Something to dig deeper into in another blog! The mouse strikes again!

Many thanks to Nikki O’Donnell, MLT, Parkland Medical Center, Derry, NH and Mariana Garza, MT, Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, TX for sharing their case studies and photos.

Becky Socha MS, MLS(ASCP)CMBB

References

  1. Diggs, LAW, Sturm, D, Bell,A. The Morphology of Human Blood Cells, Third edition. Abbott Laboratories. 1975.
  2. ManasaRavath CJ, Noopur Kulkarni, et al. Mott cells- at a glance. International Journal of Contemporary Mudeical Research 2017;4(1):43-44.
  3. Bavle RM. Bizzare plasma cell – mott cell. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. 2013;17(1):2-3.doi: 10.4103/0973-029X.110682.
  4. Luke, F, Orso, E, et al. Coronavirus disease 2019 induces multi‐lineage, morphologic changes in peripheral blood cells:eJHaem. 2020;1–8.
  5. Foldes D, Hinton R, Arami S, Bain BJ. Plasmacytoid lymphocytes in SARS-CoV-2 infection (Covid-19). Am J Hematol. 2020;1–2. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajh.
  6. Numeroff, Laura. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, 1985.

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.

False Negatives in COVID-19 Testing

I left for vacation at the beginning of June thinking “once I get back, all of this COVID stuff will be quieted down.” …Well that wasn’t quite the case and testing for novel Coronavirus has continued to be very important. In fact, this last weekend I was tested by occupational health. It came back negative, but I’m am very enthusiastic to get alternative specimen types validated; those Nasopharyngeal swabs are quite…uncomfortable. Luckily, my test was processed at our institution which gets results back in 24-48 hours. However, with the resurgence around the country, turnaround times are backing up to 7-8 days. One solution has been the widely used IDNOW point of care platform. However, there has been significant concern over false negatives produced by this platform. One reason the sensitivity is different is because this platform performs isothermal amplification of nucleic acid. This method amplifies RNA at a stable temperature instead of cycling the temperature as in real-time PCR.

Colleagues at my institution reflexed any negative IDNOW samples to the m2000 Real-Time PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 for one month. Within that time, over 500 samples were tested and the IDNOW was found to have missed 21% of positive cases (prevalence rate of 5%)2. One the positive side, it had a 98% negative predictive value, which helped rule out COVID19 infection. However, as prevalence rates are increasing, a high negative predictive value isn’t as important as sensitivity.

One study drew much attention when it claimed the IDNOW had a sensitivity of 52% in a New York City academic institution (Basu)4. However, this seems to be an outlier compared to other studies of this platform: one large multi-center study found positive percent agreement (equivalent of sensitivity when a gold standard test hasn’t been established) of 74%1. The highest PPA of 88%3 for the IDNOW was found in a study that indicated it can be completed in 17 minutes, whereas another quick instrument (but not point of care instrument: Xpert Xpress, 45min) had a PPA of 98%2.

Myself and other colleagues looked more closely at the clinical characteristics of false negative test results on the IDNOW. Overall, we found 82% PPA, and 8 patients with false negative tests. Interestingly, a majority of these patients were tested over 2 weeks after their initial onset of symptoms. The virus is known to be at its highest levels at the beginning of symptom onset. So the test may not be limited, but it should be used in the correct clinical context (< 2weeks from symptom onset). After that time, other RT-PCR based tests are more appropriate.

As clinical laboratorians, we often hear: “the right test for the right patient at the right time.” Now with so many platforms available for use in different contexts, we should help guide clinicians to Choose Wisely.

References

  1. Harrington A et al. Comparison of Abbott ID Now and Abbott m2000 methods for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 from nasopharyngeal and nasal swabs from symptomatic patients. JCM 2020. PMID: PMID: 32327448
  2. McDonald et al. Diagnostic Performance of a Rapid Point of Care Test for SARS-CoV-2 in an Urban ED Setting. Academ. Emerg. Med. 2020. PMID: 32492760
  3. Zhen W et al. Clinical Evaluation of Three Sample-To-Answer Platforms for the Detection of SARS-CoV-2. JCM 2020. PMID: 32332061
  4. Basu A et al. Performance of the rapid Nucleic Acid Amplification by Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 in nasopharyngeal swabs transported in viral media and dry nasal swabs, in a New York City academic institution. BioRxiv 2020.

-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Chief Resident of Pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. His clinical research interests include understanding how the lab intersects with transgender healthcare and improving genetic variant interpretation.

Practicing Productivity in the time of Pandemic

At this point, you are either somewhat adjusted to working from home (likely taking on new roles and responsibilities while juggling your kids, dog, and spouse), battling COVID on the front lines (caring for patients, providing us with food, or keeping the lights on), or unemployed (yet another victim among a whole host of victims during this extremely trying time). Regardless of where you fall, you have likely been on at least one video conference since January and you will likely be on many more over the next six months. As live, in person meetings of 2500 to 5000 people that we are so used to have come to a screeching halt, the world of associations such as ASCP are carefully and artfully creating virtual experiences that you can be assured will enhance and improve your life but will most definitely be in a virtual format. But the whole world is now experiencing online happy hours, teaching sessions, work meetings, telehealth visits, group therapy sessions, and kid’s birthday parties. Step back from your current situation and ask, “Have I seen MORE or LESS of my friends and peers in the last six months than in the prior year?” That answer is different for each person and carries different emotional baggage. For the constant extrovert who needs that human interaction fuel to spur them on, video conferences may not be hitting the mark. For the ever-quiet introvert who happily recharges among their books and cats and knitting, constantly being required to video chat with people for hours on end may be pushing them toward a steep cliff of insanity. For the “mover and shaker” that loves a problem a minute, thrives in crisis, and gets utter joy out of solving a problem and moving on, facing a day filled with 8 pre-scheduled video conferences or, worse, a day with an empty calendar can be demoralizing. For anyone who had a rhythm to their email usage which involved key time points to check during the day and an internal list of priorities of how to deal with emails on a rolling basis, the extreme uptick in volume of email because everyone is working remotely in the same office (“where is the water cooler chat?”) is dizzying.

It is now July 2020 and we face the uncertainly of what working from home will mean or be or even when it will end (or will we choose this as a permanent solution?). For those of us who have been and continue to report to our work place using social distancing, masks, shift rotations, and the inability to touch anything around us, how can we make this sustainable long-term, do we need to do so, and how do we know when we can end it? For the hundreds of millions of non-laboratorians who are asking, “When will there be a test so we can go back to work?”, the job of the laboratory has long been a mystery but is now suddenly thought to be a miraculous answer to a complex problem of politics, public health, and capitalism. Amidst all of the uncertainty of COVID-19 that we are facing on a continuous basis, the country was already immersed into a “fake news” war between rival political factions that already had the bulk of America either fed up with all new sources, only trusting one “news” source (the bulk of which was political agenda opinion), or simply burying heads in the sand in hopes that this was all just a bad dream. We are halfway through 2020 and the optimists are saying, “It can only get better” and the pessimists are sighing, “what comes next?”. The only people who aren’t complaining are the myriad of investors who didn’t even need a crystal ball to predict the March stock market crash, sold short, and raked in billions—which they then returned to the market buying blue chips at rock bottom (relative) prices to now be showing a 20% return. If only we could all be so lucky?

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the sun will come up tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever and this virus will run its course—whether we fight it tooth and nail or ignore it—to a natural conclusion which is harmony within our population. Over the next 6 months, enormous amounts of data on epidemiology, biology, virology, and treatment will emerge. We will learn from our colleagues in Africa what the impacts of early, sustained interventions can do to thwart the virus. Over the next year, vaccines will appear and be available for the population at large. The myriad of tests will have settled around a handful of reliable “winners” that have the sensitivity and specificity we need for each of the valued applications in our systems. The stock markets (and your retirement funds) will have recovered and exceeded pre-COVID-19 levels. However, one aspect of our lives will be permanently changed and that is our dependence and use of video conferencing for the special, the everyday, and the mundane. To that end, let me conclude with some of my (hard earned) lessons from both the last 6 months and the last 20 years of working in global health.

  1. Video conferencing etiquette is a “thing”. Seriously. Tools available to the host can get you so far but nothing says, “we are all in this together” like a team on a video call that is following the rules. Mute yourself when you are not talking. Turn off your computer’s sounds or software that makes frequent sounds. Do not leave your cellphone on your desk on vibrate (computers have great microphones!). If your internet connection is bad, switch off your video. When you are listening, look directly into your webcam (then others feel you are looking directly at them and they feel more connected). Use a virtual background if possible so we do not see your kids making breakfast in the background. Brush your hair (you can totally get away with no pants and not showering but “bed head” is a dead giveaway). Sit within 3 feet of your computer. Rename yourself on the screen if possible, with your full name and organization. Do not take a video call while walking outside.
  2. Your workstation is your productivity cockpit. Make sure it has what you need. In today’s world of multitasking and conferencing, two screens are almost a must. You can use a laptop while traveling but for a home office, having two screens creates a much cleaner canvas to spread out your work, keep resources at your fingertips, take notes while conferencing, etc. Treat your digital workspace like your physical desktop. Keep only what you need on the desktop. File your files in folders you understand and can follow. If your virtual desktop is covered in hundreds of files and icons, your brain is not mentally able to process or prioritize. Use a background picture that sends you to your happy place so that, when you need a break, all windows can be closed, and you can zip to your happy place immediately.
  3. Develop a personal system for communications. Maybe you are a texter, a snapchatter, an emailer, a phone-call-aholic, an instant messenger fiend… Whatever you are comfortable with, the other dozen people you interact with are comfortable with something else. Your team lead may say, “We are using Teams!” or “We are using Basecamp!” or “We are using Sharepoint!” but, let’s face it, it may not fit your style or your work flow. The important thing is to develop a system for whatever communication type you feel most comfortable and work that system to be productive. I have seen the inboxes of people who have 85,000 unopened emails (both personally and professionally) to which I reply, “Delete them!”. If something in those emails was so important, the person will have found another way to contact you. You are never going to read them and, honestly, email just does not work for you. Pick another channel. Texting can work for many people but the organization of texts on a phone and the archiving eventually becomes a challenge such that screen captures or lots of copy/pastes must occur. Whatsapp is a good solution with its archiving function but can still present a permanence problem. Your chosen communication channel is important because it will dictate your productivity style. For example, one of my colleagues takes extensive notes on paper (extensive!) but sometimes takes extensive notes on a tablet. Their work stack (i.e., the collection of items they work through daily) is a combination of pieces of paper and digital notes, but it is disconnected from a communication system. The time required for note translation into understanding and then moving those thoughts to an email, for example, for me would be wasted time. But they remain one of the most productive people I know so this system works for them! Each person must decide what makes them most productive and what keeps them informed and connected; however, a good approach if you are feeling overwhelmed is to use a single system (digital) that moves with you. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail (and calendar), and iCloud all have cross functionality that allow seamless notetaking, email and calendar creation, and file connectivity. Outlooks category function for email can be a massive time saver for the adept user where a preliminary read through of email can allow for classification (for example, I use “Urgent”, “To do – Non-Urgent”, and “Waiting on Reply”) and then priority follow up. At the writing of this blog, I have less than 30 emails in my inbox, all are categorized, and all are calendared for completion.
  4. Go outside and breath. The single most important thing that we can achieve as a society as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is an appreciation for life, freedom, and health and that is difficult to do if you stay in front of your computer for 12 hours a day. More than half a million people have died of COVID-19 and we could have been one of them. Unemployment spike from a flat 4% to more than 14% with many companies, restaurants, and small businesses never planning to reopen. The unfortunate tragedies that continue to befall our black brothers and sisters led to peaceful protests which were then corrupted by riot and ruin across many major cities. Even now, racial and ethnic disparities, especially our Navajo neighbors in the Southwest along with our black communities, cause disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. It is not a time to think, “I’ve been lucky!”. It is a time to say, “What can I do to help today?”And where the help is needed is outside, in your community. Yes, you should wear a mask if you can’t social distance. Be sure to wash your hands frequently. But get out there and be part of the change for the better!
milner-small

-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

COVID-19 Patients with “Green Crystals of …” STOP! Please Don’t Call Them That

Blue-green cytoplasmic inclusions in neutrophils and monocytes are a novelty in hematology. It is rare to see these inclusions on peripheral smears, and when we do, there is excitement, but sadness too, because, when noted, they usually indicate a poor prognosis and impending death. Thus, we have heard them called “green crystals of death” or “death crystals.” I know I would not want to read a family member’s medical chart and see reference to “death crystals.” It’s an insensitive term, and one the medical community is trying to discourage. And, in fact, though it typically does indicate a poor prognosis, not all cases lead to death. In published reports, it has been shown that short term mortality in patients with these crystals is about 60%.1

These rare inclusions are refractile and irregular in shape, and are found in neutrophils, and occasionally in monocytes. Color seems to be subjective here. They call them green when inclusions in photos or cells I am looking at look very blue to me. The color perceived may depend on the type of stain (Giemsa, Wright or Wright-Giemsa) used and how fancy we get in color names and descriptions. Or, maybe I’m just color blind! Some people (like my husband) are “lumpers” and call anything blue-green, blue, or green, but don’t recognize subtleties of colors. Thus, I guess to make everyone happy, or to compromise, the blue-green description may fit them best.

Image 1. Blue-green inclusions seen in neutrophils. Photos courtesy of Alana D. Swanson. UMMC

These blue-green inclusions were originally reported in patients with hepatic injury and failure. Laboratory results include elevations in AST, ALT and LDH. More recently, there have been cases with no evidence of hepatic injury. Researchers are now finding that these crystals can occur in patients with tissue injury other than liver, and in patients with multiorgan failure. In patients with no liver injury, what is a common factor is that LDH is elevated, indicating tissue injury. Additionally, along with these crystals, lactic acid levels can be used as a predictor of survival. Higher levels of lactic acidosis at the time crystals are noted is a negative predictor of survival.2

In trying to determine the clinical significance of these crystals, they have been subject to a number of different stains to determine their content. The association with hepatic failure led researchers to hypothesize that the crystals were a bile product in circulation. Since then, the crystals have been found to be negative in bile stains. When stained with other stains, Oil Red O showed positive in neutrophils, indicating high lipid content. The inclusions did not stain positive with iron stain or myeloperoxidase. Acid fast stains showed the inclusions to be acid fast positive.3 These crystals also show an interesting similarity to sea-blue histiocytes, which further associates them with tissue injury. After analysis, it is now thought that these crystals contain lipofuscin-like deposits representing lysosomal degradation products, and may be present in multiple types of tissue injury.2

With the current pandemic, I have seen reports of these crystals in COVID-19 patients. I have heard of fellow technologists seeing these, and a recent paper described the first reported cases in patients with COVID-19. These recent incidences may lead to new information about exactly what clinical significance they hold. About one third of COVID-19 patients have elevated ALT and AST, though it is not yet clear whether the liver dysfunction is directly caused by the virus, due to sepsis, or other complications of patient comorbidities. Many COVID-19 patients have mild disease, yet some develop severe pneumonia, respiratory complications, and multiorgan failure. Mortality is increased in these severely affected patients. To better understand and manage treatment for COVID-19, physicians seek to identify biological indicators associated with adverse outcomes.1

In a New York City study, Cantu and colleagues reported on six COVID-19 patients who presented with blue-green crystals in neutrophils and/or monocytes. All six patients had an initial lymphocytopenia, and significantly elevated AST, ALT, LDH and lactic acid at the time the crystals were noted. All of the patients had comorbidities, yet only two of the six presented with acute liver disease. Interestingly, in the six cases reported on in the study, only one had blue-green inclusions reported from the original manual differential. The others were found retrospectively when correlating the cases with patients known to have elevated ALT and AST. All patients died within 20 days of initial diagnosis.1

The consensus of several papers in the last few years is that these crystals are being underreported. As seen in the above study, the crystals were originally seen in just one of the six patients. A look back revealed the other cases. With an increase in COVID-19 cases in our facilities, these blue-green crystal inclusions may be a novelty that is wearing off. We may see a rise in their presence, and need to be able to recognize and report them. This information is important to report if clinicians are to use these crystal inclusions along with acute transaminase and lactic acid elevations to predict poor patient outcomes.

Clinicians, hematologists, and laboratory technologists should be educated and have a high level of awareness of these inclusions. The University of Rochester conducted a study a few years ago that noted that, because these crystals are rare, techs may not be on the lookout for them. Once techs see them, they seem to be on the alert and more are reported. The hospital instituted an “increased awareness” campaign, which resulted in an increase in detection. This revealed cases that were not related to liver injury, including patients with metastatic cancer and sepsis. However, an important correlating factor was that all of the patients had mild to severe elevations in liver enzymes. With more awareness, we are starting to see them in patients without hepatic injury, but with other inflammation and tissue injury.4

Image 2. Blue- green crystal inclusions seen in a patient diagnosed with sepsis and multiorgan failure. Photo courtesy of Karen Cable, YRMC.

Let’s raise our level of awareness of these maybe-not-so-rare crystal inclusions. And, please be sure to call them by their preferred name, blue-green neutrophil inclusions! Let’s not talk about death crystals or crystals of death.

Many thanks to my colleague Alana D. Swanson, MLS(ASCP)CM , University of Maryland Medical Center and Karen Cable, Hematology Section Lead, Yavapai Regional Medical Center, Arizona, for the photos used in this blog. 

References

  1. Cantu, M, Towne, W, Emmons, F et al. Clinical Significance of blue-green neutrophil and monocyte cytoplasmic inclusions in SARS-CoV-2 positive critically ill patients. Br J Haematol. May 26, 2020.
  2. Hodgkins, SR, Jones, J. A Case of Blue-Green neutrophil inclusions. ASCLS Today. 2019;32:431.
  3. Hodgson, T.O., Ruskova, A., Shugg, C.J., McCallum, V.J. and Morison, I.M. Green neutrophil and monocyte inclusions – time to acknowledge and report. Br J Haematol, 2015;170: 229-235.
  4. Patel,N, Hoffman,CM, Goldman,BJ et al. Green Inclusions in Neutrophils and Monocytes are an Indicator of Acute Liver Injury and High Mortality. Acta Haematol. 2017;138:85-90

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.

A Resident’s Perspective of SARS-CoV-2 Testing Using the Double Diamond Model of Design Process

During the 2019-2020 residency interview season, I “courted” – no better way to describe those interactions over lunch–several potential co-residents, who were eager to know why I came to University of Chicago (NorthShore) for my residency. My answers and those of my fellow residents would help the candidates determine how high they should rank our program, so I enthusiastically recalled things I liked when I interviewed at NorthShore about a year earlier. I had also recently completed my first microbiology rotation in residency and I had enjoyed seeing all of those factors work synergistically to improve patient health outcomes through improved testing. So passionately, I shared how I fell in love with the physical structure of the department which has almost all the labs and offices one floor, the automation of the labs-especially the core and microbiology labs, the capability and regular expansion of its molecular laboratory, the people and of course, “the feel” about NorthShore.

With these experiences, I looked forward to my second microbiology in March 2020, where I would learn more about the diagnostics of various microorganisms–E. coli: Gram negative short stubby/broad shouldered rods vs. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Gram negative long slender rods, etc. (Un)fortunately, March came, but the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) had other plans for my learning. Cases of Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), caused SARS-CoV-2[1] were increasing rapidly in the US, so laboratories, including ours had rapidly implement testing. Rather than have morning rounds and other educational activities where the differential diagnoses of several clinically relevant microorganisms were discussed, we had virtual and in-person meetings discussing what to do about one virus. These continued and by the middle of March, we had become the only non-government lab in Illinois and second in the Midwest that had developed a clinical PCR test for SARS-CoV-2. I was excited to be part of that success, but more so, about learning how we achieved that as a team.

Our approach could be summarized using the Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Plan Do Study Act (PDSA) is an iterative model of quality improvement embedded in the 4D design process.
  1. In the discover phase, a phase of divergent thought [2] and exploration, we identified from events in China and other parts of the world as well as some other states in the US that the community we care for could potentially be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
  2. The next phase- define- is a convergent phase where the problem to be solved, as well as the resources available and resources needed to solve it are delineated [2]. As we transitioned from the discovery to define phases-and recalling the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak about 10 years ago- it became evident that an epidemic of a relatively fatal respiratory virus which we knew very little about was heading our way. As clinical laboratory professionals, our objective was to help identify members of the community who had been infected through testing so appropriate steps could be taken to sequester and care for them. Among our available resources was our molecular laboratory, but like most laboratories outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC we lacked the reagents, primers and authorization to run the test.
  3. Develop is the next phase in the process and this is a divergent phase where the team explores and refines potential solution to the issues and selects one[2]. This is often followed by the convergent deliver phase where one of the solutions from the develop phase is implemented. Feedbacks which are used for projects are also received during this phase[2]. But, the outbreak continued to evolve rapidly [3] with briskly increasing positivity rates[4] and some of the solutions we considered would require some time to be implemented and/or have long turnaround times. For instance, since we had a roust molecular laboratory, one option was to develop our assays and test in-house, while another was to send the samples to outside labs where they could be run. Running the tests in-house would have a shorter turnaround time and would be more efficient, which is extremely important considering the severity of COVID-19.
  4. Deliver is the last phase of the process.  We decided to develop a SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test at our institution, but we also knew we needed to put logistics and protocols in-place to deliver our solution.  For example, COVID-19 presents with flu-like symptoms but flu is common between December and March[5-7] so it would be impractical to expect to test all patients with flu-like symptoms – at least with the limited resources we had. In any case, it was clear that we would not have an ideal amount of time or information to develop and implement the perfect solution. As such, the revolving and fluid nature of the develop and deliver phases of our response is best depicted using the Plan Do Study Act (PDSA), an iterative model of quality improvement. As shown in Fig. 1, we developed and validated our assay, as well as developed an initial protocol for screening patients and logistics for patient-centered delivery in the “Do” step. Importantly, we also reviewed the effectiveness of these operations, and made necessary changes corresponding in the “Study” and “Act” steps respectively.

The prompt decision to implement in-house COVID-19 testing at NorthShore has proven to be the right one. To date we have tested 75,000 specimens and nearly 20,000 tests have been positive. Success which was possible because of the factors which made me come to NorthShore, amongst others. The LEAN, bright and capacious design of the department limits the innate barriers of hierarchical organizational structure; encouraging seamless horizontal and vertical intradepartmental consultation and collaboration as COVID-19 led us into uncharted territory. Also, having a molecular lab that regularly expands its capability made the decision to test in-house relatively easy. In addition, having an automated microbiology lab made it easier for staff to be flexible and deal with the various demands of testing for a new bug in a pandemic. And of course, the people at NorthShore who are ready to volunteer, take up new roles or change shifts to accommodate the demands of a rapidly evolving pandemic, stay in constant communications and provide feedback, and who make everything else at NorthShore work!

References

  1. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200130-sitrep-10-ncov.pdf?sfvrsn=d0b2e480_2
  2. Council, Design. “Eleven lessons: Managing design in eleven global companies-desk research report.” Design Council (2007).
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/summary.html
  4. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200324-sitrep-64-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=723b221e_2
  5. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses#:~:text=symptoms
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
  8. Christoff, Patricia. “Running PDSA cycles.” Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care 48.8 (2018): 198-201.

Adesola Akinyemi, M.D., MPH, is a first year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at University of Chicago (NorthShore). He is interested in most areas of pathology including surgical pathology, cytopathology and neuropathology -and is enjoying it all. He is also passionate about health outcomes improvement through systems thinking and design, and other aspects of healthcare management. Twitter: @AkinyemiDesola

-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania. 

COVID-19 Testing Explained

By this point I believe we are all tired of reading and talking about COVID. However based on reading comments on social media, it’s quite clear that there are a lot of misconceptions about COVID testing. For starters COVID-19 is the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So all of the tests we are using to assist in the diagnosis of COVID-19 are really looking for signs that the person was infected with SARS-CoV-2. There are also 3 main categories of tests for SARS-CoV-2 based on the target of the assay: RNA, antigen, and antibody.

Diagnosis of COVID-19 should be based on clinical symptoms, risk of exposure, test results and timeline. The diagnostic tests based on detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA are the most commonly used and reliable for diagnosis of COVID-19.1 All of these assays are based on amplifying the viral RNA to detect the presence of the RNA. Most assays use some form of PCR to amplify the virus, however because the virus is RNA-based it has to be converted to cDNA with reverse transcriptase PCR before amplification and detection. TMA or transcription-mediated amplification is another chemistry that can be used to amplify the RNA to a detectable level. Both PCR and TMA based assays are very sensitive at detecting the virus especially within the first week after symptoms develop.1,2 Due to the RNA-based nature of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, the mutation rate is anticipated to be high. Most of the RNA-based assays have adopted a strategy to target 2 different areas of the viral genome to prevent missing the presence of the virus due to a mutation in the primer binding site.

A SARS-CoV-2 antigen test received EUA in early May. The test is designed with immunofluorescence-based lateral flow. This type of test is designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 proteins present on the outside of the virus. In general, this class of test is cheaper and faster than RNA-based testing however it is less sensitive (80% clinical sensitivity).3 The clinical specificity of antigen assays is shown to be 100%,3 therefore a positive result is reliable. These tests can be used for screening; however patients with negative results may still need to proceed to testing by an RNA-based method. Antigen based tests is typically more sensitive during the same timeframe when PCR testing is more sensitive, ie earlier in the course of disease.

SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests are the last class of tests. Seroconversion appears to occur within 7-14 days of symptom onset2 or 15-20 days post exposure to the virus.4 There are many different tests to choose from to determine if the patient has previously been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The assays range from lateral flow cassettes to high throughput chemiluminescent based assays. Some of the SARS-CoV-2 antibody assays detect IgG, IgM, IgA or some combination of the 3 including total antibody without differentiating between the three. The latest studies have shown that some patients develop IgM first, some with IgG, and others had both IgG and IgM develop at the same time.5 Therefore differentiating IgG from IgM is not providing a timeline for acute infection as we have seen in response to other viruses. Although sensitivity and specificity vary widely between manufacturers total antibody detection appears to be more sensitive than IgG or IgM detection alone.4 The FDA recently pulled numerous assays off of the market due to poor performance.

It is important to note that even with the most sensitive and specific antibody test, these tests cannot determine if a patient has protective immunity. Unfortunately we don’t know enough about immunity with regards to COVID yet. Early studies are promising, showing that some level of antibody will likely provide protection from future exposure. We don’t know if there is a threshold of antibody that needs to be present before a patient is immune, will the immunity only decrease the severity and not prevent reinfection, and how long the antibodies are maintained after exposure. These will be important questions to answer before the clinical utility of antibody testing can be realized. Right now the test is useful to determine is a patient was previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and is helpful to address epidemiological questions with regards to prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. The antibody test should not be used for diagnosis of current infection due to the delay to seroconvert after exposure.

References

  1. Sethuraman, N., Jeremiah, S. S., & Ryo, A. (2020). Interpreting Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.8259
  2. Wolfel, R., Corman, V. M., Guggemos, W., Seilmaier, M., Zange, S., Muller, M. A., . . . Wendtner, C. (2020). Virological assessment of hospitalized patients with COVID-2019. Nature, 581(7809), 465-469. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2196-x
  3. Quidel Sofia®2 SARS Antigen FIA. https://www.quidel.com/sites/default/files/product/documents/EF1438900EN00_0.pdf 5/29/2020.
  4. Lou, B., Li, T. D., Zheng, S. F., Su, Y. Y., Li, Z. Y., Liu, W., . . . Chen, Y. (2020). Serology characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 infection since exposure and post symptom onset. Eur Respir J. doi:10.1183/13993003.00763-2020
  5. Long, Q. X., Liu, B. Z., Deng, H. J., Wu, G. C., Deng, K., Chen, Y. K., . . . Huang, A. L. (2020). Antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in patients with COVID-19. Nat Med. doi:10.1038/s41591-020-0897-1

-Tabetha Sundin, PhD, HCLD (ABB), MB (ASCP)CM,  has over 10 years of laboratory experience in clinical molecular diagnostics including oncology, genetics, and infectious diseases. She is the Scientific Director of Molecular Diagnostics and Serology at Sentara Healthcare. Dr. Sundin holds appointments as Adjunct Associate Professor at Old Dominion University and Assistant Professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School and is involved with numerous efforts to support the molecular diagnostics field.