Top 10 Must-Dos in ICU in COVID-19 Include Prone Ventilation

Liam Davenport

March 31, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the first international guidelines on the management of critically ill patients with COVID-19 are understandably comprehensive, one expert involved in their development highlights the essential recommendations and explains the rationale behind prone ventilation.

A panel of 39 experts from 12 countries from across the globe developed the 50 recommendations within four domains, under the auspices of the Surviving Sepsis Campaign. They are issued by the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM), and will subsequently be published in the journal Intensive Care Medicine.

A central aspect of the guidance is what works, and what does not, in treating critically ill patients with COVID-19 in intensive care.

Ten of the recommendations cover potential pharmacotherapies, most of which have only weak or no evidence of benefit, as discussed in a recent perspective on Medscape. All 50 recommendations, along with the associated level of evidence, are detailed in table 2 in the paper.

There is also an algorithm for the management of patients with acute hypoxemic respiratory failure secondary to COVID-19 (figure 2) and a summary of clinical practice recommendations (figure 3).

In an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association issued just days after these new guidelines, Francois Lamontagne, MD, MSc, and Derek C. Angus, MD, MPH, say they "represent an excellent first step toward optimal, evidence-informed care for patients with COVID-19." Lamontagne is from Universitaire de Sherbrooke, Canada, and Angus is from University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania, and is an associate editor with JAMA.

Dealing With Tide of COVID-19 Patients, Protecting Healthcare Workers

Editor-in-chief of Intensive Care Medicine Giuseppe Citerio, MD, from University of Milano-Bicocca, Monza, Italy, said: "COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly worldwide, and so we are increasingly seeing that intensive care units [ICUs] have difficulty in dealing with the tide of patients."

"We need more resource in ICUs, and quickly. This means more ventilators and more trained personnel. In the meantime, this guidance aims to rationalize our approach and to avoid unproven strategies," he explains in a press release from ESICM.

"This is the first guidance to lay out what works and what doesn't in treating coronavirus-infected patients in intensive care. It's based on decades of research on acute respiratory infection being applied to COVID-19 patients," added ESICM President-Elect Maurizio Cecconi, MD, from Humanitas University, Milan, Italy.

"At the same time as caring for patients, we need to make sure that health workers are following procedures which will allow themselves to be protected against infection," he stressed.

"We must protect them, they are in the frontline. We cannot allow our healthcare workers to be at risk. On top of that, if they get infected they could also spread the disease further."

Top-10 Recommendations

While all 50 recommendations are key to the successful management of COVID-19 patients, busy clinicians on the frontline need to zone in on those indispensable practical recommendations that they should implement immediately.

Medscape Medical News therefore asked lead author Waleed Alhazzani, MD, MSc, from the Division of Critical Care, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, to give his personal top 10, the first three of which are focused on limiting the spread of infection.

1.  For healthcare workers performing aerosol-generating procedures [1] on patients with COVID-19 in the ICU, we recommend using fitted respirator masks (N95 respirators, FFP2, or equivalent), as compared to surgical/medical masks, in addition to other personal protective equipment (eg, gloves, gown, and eye protection such as a face shield or safety goggles.

2.  We recommend performing aerosol-generating procedures on ICU patients with COVID-19 in a negative-pressure room.

3.  For healthcare workers providing usual care for nonventilated COVID-19 patients, we suggest using surgical/medical masks, as compared to respirator masks in addition to other personal protective equipment.

4.  For healthcare workers performing endotracheal intubation on patients with COVID-19, we suggest using video guided laryngoscopy, over direct laryngoscopy, if available.

5.  We recommend endotracheal intubation in patients with COVID-19,  performed by healthcare workers experienced with airway management, to minimize the number of attempts and risk of transmission.

6.  For intubated and mechanically ventilated adults with suspicion of COVID-19, we suggest obtaining endotracheal aspirates, over bronchial wash or bronchoalveolar lavage samples.

7.  For adults with COVID-19 and acute hypoxemic respiratory failure, we suggest using high-flow nasal cannula [HFNC] over non-invasive positive pressure ventilation [NIPPV].

8.  For adults with COVID-19 receiving NIPPV or HFNC, we recommend close monitoring for worsening of respiratory status and early intubation in a controlled setting if worsening occurs.

9.  For mechanically ventilated adults with COVID-19 and moderate to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome [ARDS], we suggest prone ventilation for 12 to 16 hours over no prone ventilation.

    10.  For mechanically ventilated adults with COVID-19 and respiratory failure (without ARDS), we don't recommend routine use of systemic corticosteroids.

[1] This includes endotracheal intubation, bronchoscopy, open suctioning, administration of nebulized treatment, manual ventilation before intubation, physical proning of the patient, disconnecting the patient from the ventilator, non-invasive positive pressure ventilation, tracheostomy, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.


These choices are in broad agreement with those selected by Jason T. Poston, MD, University of Chicago, Illinois, and colleagues in their synopsis of these guidelines, published online March 26 in JAMA, although they also highlight another recommendation on infection control:

•   For healthcare workers who are performing non-aerosol-generating procedures on mechanically ventilated (closed circuit) patients with COVID-19, we suggest using surgical/medical masks, as opposed to respirator masks, in addition to other personal protective equipment.

Importance of Prone Ventilation, Perhaps for Many Days

One recommendation singled out by both Alhazzani and coauthors, and Poston and colleagues, relates to prone ventilation for 12 to 16 hours in adults with moderate to severe ARDS receiving mechanical ventilation.

Michelle N. Gong, MD, MS, chief of critical care medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, New York City, also highlighted this practice in a live-stream interview with JAMA editor-in-chief Howard Bauchner, MD.  

She explained that, in her institution, they have been "very aggressive about proning these patients as early as possible, but unlike some of the past ARDS patients…they tend to require many, many days of proning in order to get a response".

Gong added that patients "may improve very rapidly when they are proned, but when we supinate them, they lose [the improvement] and then they get proned for upwards of 10 days or more, if need be."

Alhazzani told Medscape Medical News that prone ventilation "is a simple intervention that requires training of healthcare providers but can be applied in most contexts."

He explained that the recommendation "is driven by indirect evidence from ARDS," not specifically those in COVID-19, with recent studies having shown that COVID-19 "can affect lung bases and may cause significant atelectasis and reduced lung compliance in the context of ARDS."

"Prone ventilation has been shown to reduce mortality in patients with moderate to severe ARDS. Therefore, we issued a suggestion for clinicians to consider prone ventilation in this population."

"Impressively Thorough" Recommendations, With Some Caveats

In their JAMA editorial, Lamontagne and Angus describe the recommendations as "impressively thorough and expansive."

They note that they address resource scarcity, which "is likely to be a critical issue in low- and middle-income countries experiencing any reasonably large number of cases and in high-income countries experiencing a surge in the demand for critical care."

The authors say, however, that a "weakness" of the guidelines is that they make recommendations for interventions that "lack supporting evidence."

Consequently, "when prioritizing scarce resources, clinicians and healthcare systems will have to choose among options that have limited evidence to support them."

"In future iterations of the guidelines, there should be more detailed recommendations for how clinicians should prioritize scarce resources, or include more recommendations against the use of unproven therapies."

"The tasks ahead for the dissemination and uptake of optimal critical care are herculean," Lamontagne and Angus say.

They include "a need to generate more robust evidence, consider carefully the application of that evidence across a wide variety of clinical circumstances, and generate supporting materials to ensure effective implementation of the guideline recommendations," they conclude.

ESICM recommendations coauthor Yaseen Arabi is the principal investigator on a clinical trial for lopinavir/ritonavir and interferon in Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and he was a nonpaid consultant on antiviral active for MERS- coronavirus (CoV) for Gilead Sciences and SAB Biotherapeutics. He is an investigator on REMAP-CAP trial and is a Board Members of the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC). Coauthor Eddy Fan declared receiving consultancy fees from ALung Technologies and MC3 Cardiopulmonary. Coauthor Maurizio Cecconi declared consultancy work with Edwards Lifesciences, Directed Systems, and Cheetah Medical.

JAMA Clinical Guidelines Synopsis coauthor Poston declares receiving honoraria for the CHEST Critical Care Board Review Course.

Editorialist Lamontagne reported receiving grants from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé, and the Lotte & John Hecht Foundation, unrelated to this work. Editorialist Angus participated in the development of Surviving Sepsis Campaign guidelines for sepsis, but had no role in the creation of the current COVID-19 guidelines, nor the decision to create these guidelines.

Intensive Care Medicine. Published online March 28, 2020. Full text

JAMA. Published online March 26, 2020. Full text, Editorial

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