CHOC-UCI Pediatric Urology study illustrates how COVID-19 delayed emergency care

CHOC’s pediatric urology team, in a partnership with UCI Health, has published the largest study of its kind on an emergency condition that afflicts young males, adding to the emerging body of data on how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused patients to delay seeking emergency treatment.

The CHOC/UCI-led study, recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology, also marks a first for the Western Pediatric Urology Consortium (WPUC), a group of several leading pediatric healthcare centers that CHOC was instrumental in founding in 2020.

“This study is a good example of CHOC leading the way and bringing together institutions to answer questions that haven’t been answered before,” says Carol Davis-Dao, PhD, a clinical epidemiologist in CHOC’s Department of Pediatric Urology who has a joint appointment in the UC Irvine Department of Urology.

Dr. Davis-Dao leads urology research efforts at CHOC to provide patients and their families with the most current, evidence-based diagnoses and treatments.

The lead author of “A Multicenter Study of Acute Testicular Torsion in the Time of COVID-10,” Dr. Sarah Holzman, a research fellow at UCI-CHOC, says the research paper is the only multicenter urology study and the largest one related to torsion and COVID-19. Most importantly, she adds, it’s the only study that shows patients were delaying presenting to the Emergency Department for testicular torsion.  

The study’s key finding: Patients significantly delayed seeking treatment in the Emergency Department following the onset of symptoms of a testicular torsion during the early months of the pandemic, and, as a result, more of them had to have a testicle removed compared to patients with the same condition who sought care before the pandemic.

“This is the largest study of testicular torsion during COVID-19 and the first to show a significantly longer time from symptom onset to presentation (in the Emergency Department),” the paper states.

“Low baseline awareness of torsion may contribute to delays in care that were present even before the pandemic, making patients and their families less likely to present for emergency care during the pandemic when there is concern for exposure to COVID-19.”

Also participating as authors of the study were CHOC pediatric urologists Dr. Heidi Stephany, Dr. Kai-wen Chuang, Dr. Elias Wehbi, and Dr. Antoine Khoury, chief of pediatric urology at both CHOC and UC Irvine Medical Center. 

Testicular torsion occurs when the spermatic cord that supplies blood to the testicle twists, cutting off the testicle’s blood supply. It presents as acute and severe scrotal pain that quickly worsens, as well as nausea and vomiting.

Testicular torsion occurs when the spermatic cord that supplies blood to the testicle twists, cutting off the blood supply.

It’s a relatively rare surgical emergency, with an incidence rate of around 4 per 100,000 males per year in the United States. It most frequently occurs in males between the ages of 10 and 19, with one peak in the neonatal period and the second peak around puberty.

Surgery is required for all patients with testicular torsion.

When torsion is caught early — typically within the first six hours — a detorsion orchiopexy can be performed. In the detorsion surgery, the spermatic cord is untwisted and the blood flow returns to the testicle. The surgeon then secures the testis to the inner scrotum so it can never twist again. However, if patients delay coming to the hospital and the testicle does not have blood supply for several hours, the testicle may have to be removed in a procedure called an orchiectomy.

The CHOC-UCI led study involved a total of 221 patients enrolled at one of seven hospitals in the WPUC (CHOC, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Seattle Children’s, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC San Diego and Western University in Ontario, Canada).

A total of 84 patients with testicular torsion, ages 2 months to 18 years, made up the first cohort. They were studied from March 2020 through July 2020.

The second cohort totaled 137 patients who were treated from January 2019 through February 2020.

The median time it took patients in the COVID-19 cohort to show up at the Emergency Department from the onset of symptoms was 17.9 hours, the study found. This compares to 7.5 hours for patients in the pre-pandemic cohort.

A total of 42 percent of patients in the COVID-19 cohort underwent an orchiectomy (removal of the twisted testicle), compared to 29 percent in the pre-pandemic population.

Distribution of patterns in acute testicular torsion presentation by month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blue bars represent rate of orchiectomy by month, while the navy-blue line represents median time from onset of symptoms to presentation by month.

Other studies have shown that COVID-19 has caused people to delay Emergency Department treatment, including one that examined acute appendicitis from the New York metropolitan region and another similar study in Virginia.

During the last week of June 2020, 41 percent of U.S. adults admitted to avoiding medical care because of COVID-19 exposure concerns and 12 percent avoided urgent or emergent care, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, an epidemiological digest for the United States published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drs. Holzman and Davis-Dao say they plan to continue the study as the pandemic progresses.

Read more about CHOC’s Department of Urology.

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Clearing pediatric patients for sports after COVID-19: Tips for pediatricians

While there is less data about pediatric patients, emerging evidence shows that people infected with COVID-19 are at increased risk for myocarditis. Because of this, it is important that pediatricians appropriately evaluate patients before they are cleared to return to play as sports resume after a prolonged COVID-prompted off season.

Here, Dr. Matthew Kornswiet, a sports pediatrician in the CHOC Primary Care Network, and Dr. Chris Koutures, a CHOC pediatrician and sports medicine specialist, share what providers ought to know when clearing young athletes or students for a return to sports following a COVID-19 infection.

Patients should be seen in the provider’s office for an in-person, formal evaluation and physical exam to determine clearance, recommend Drs. Kornswiet and Koutures. The following decision tree can aid in triaging patients, as well as providing consistent patient care. This decision tree is applicable to middle and high school athletes, as well as to those who compete in high-exertion activities and to other patients on an individual basis.

The California Interscholastic Federation recommends that if a patient’s infection was over three months ago, they had an asymptomatic, mild or moderate illness, and the patient has regained fitness or is back to full activity without symptoms, then they can return to sports as long as they have an active/recent preparticipation physical exam.

Once an athlete is cleared for a return to sports, Drs. Kornswiet and Koutures recommended that they go through a gradual and step-wise return to play. This is similar to the return-to-play protocol for concussions, and should be performed under the supervision of a physician and athletic trainer, if possible.

Each phase should last at least 24 to 48 hours and should not cause return of symptoms. If the athlete/student experiences a return of symptoms or develops unexpected fatigue, dizziness, difficulty breathing, chest pain/pressure, decreased exercise tolerance, or fainting, then they should stop their return progression and return to their physician for further evaluation.

These protocols are not substitutes for medical judgment, and additional queries should be directed to pediatric cardiologists or sports medicine specialists.

Following are more general return-to-sports guidance for parents and coaches:

Refer a patient to CHOC Cardiology

CHOC-UCI origami mask project gets some national attention

Back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in late March 2020, Jonathan Realmuto, a visiting scientist at CHOC and a postdoctoral researcher at UC Irvine, got a call from his lab leader, Dr. Terence Sanger.

Dr. Sanger, a physician, engineer, and computational neuroscientist who joined CHOC in January 2020 as its vice president of research and first chief scientific officer, was concerned about the possibility of CHOC running out of masks for its frontline healthcare workers.

“Could you please think about this problem and see if you can come up with a solution just in case the supply runs out?” Dr. Sanger asked Realmuto, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and whose expertise is wearable robotics, which help people regain and strengthen their movements.

Dr. Terence Sanger, chief scientific officer at CHOC

Since September 2017, the two had been working together after Realmuto earned his doctorate degree from the University of Washington.

Thus began the UCI Face Mask Project, a collaboration between Dr. Sanger and Realmuto that grew to a team of five that includes two other UCI professors, aerosol chemist Jim Smith and environmental toxologist Michael Kleinman, and Michael Lawler, an atmospheric chemist and assistant project scientist who works in Smith’s lab.

The work of the UCI Face Mask Project ultimately led to the creation of what experts call a mask for the masses — an inexpensive face covering that takes its cues from origami, the art of paper folding closely associated with Japanese culture.

No sewing is needed to make the origami mask – just a filter material that can be purchased at a craft or hardware store, a stapler, two elastic straps, and a nose clip fashioned from a metal wire such as a twist tie.

Illustrated directions for creating the origami mask

Realmuto was among several origami mask experts recently featured in a National Geographic story that highlights the inexpensive (less than $1 of materials per mask), disposal masks that can be made by anyone after a little practice. The story details how origami pleats and interlocking folds can result in better-fitting, more comfortable, and more stylish face coverings.

Dr. Sanger, who served in an advisory capacity on the UCI Face Mask Project, played a “very critical role” in developing the mask, which has not been mass produced but was designed in case there is a shortage of face coverings such as N95 masks, the gold standard at preventing expelled air leakage during coughing.

“CHOC and UCI were one of the first out of the gate to work on this,” says Realmuto, who with his colleagues has written a paper, “A Sew-Free Origami Mask for Improvised Respiratory Protection,” that details the research that went into the project.

The team put several masks through rigorous testing using a custom-made mannequin head equipped with a breathing tube and mounted inside a chamber.

The team concluded, in the paper they plan to get reviewed by peers and published, that origami masks combine high filtration efficiency with ease of breathing, minimal leakage that can dramatically reduce overall mask performance, and greater comfort compared to some commercial alternatives.

Because of this, origami face coverings are “likely to promote greater mask-wearing tolerance and acceptance,” the researchers concluded in their paper.

Says Realmuto: “Origami presents this really nice solution where you can use the folds as a way to make seams that won’t leak.”

The team produced a how-to video starring Realmuto, who shows how to construct the single-use masks. They tested a variety of materials that have an inner layer of non-woven polypropylene that can be easily and rapidly sourced locally from a hardware or craft store, in addition to a material made by Filti that can be purchased through the manufacturer.

“For a novice without prior experience,” they write, “construction takes approximately 10 minutes. In our experience, practice decreases assembly time to under five minutes.”

Dr. Sanger and Realmuto have collaborated on another unrelated project that earned them accolades. That project involved developing a non-rigid forearm orthosis – a brace to correct alignment or provide support – to help make it easier for people with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy to feed themselves, open doors, and complete other daily tasks. Their work made them finalists in the Best Paper category at the 2019 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Conference on Soft Robotics.

In July 2021, Realmuto will become a full-time assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UC Riverside. He says he hopes to maintain his collaboration with Dr. Sanger and CHOC on future projects.

“It’s been a great partnership,”Realmuto says.

For more information about the UCI Face Mask Project, click here.

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CHOC studies child maltreatment during COVID-19, adopts new tools to better recognize signs of abuse

With COVID-19 restrictions keeping more families at home, a critical question has emerged:

Are children suffering more physical and emotional maltreatment because they’re spending more time with parents who are dealing with extra stress in their lives?

A recently completed study by clinicians in the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital sheds some light on whether child abuse cases are rising because of stay-at-home orders. The study comes as CHOC ED personnel are using two new screening tools to help clinicians better recognize signs of abuse as well as victims of human sex trafficking.

COVID’s effect on child maltreatment

CHOC ED personnel studied whether the incidence of child maltreatment – which includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, plus neglect – among patients being admitted to the emergency department has risen since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020.

They reviewed records of ED visits of patients up to 18 years old during a 3 ½-month period from March to July 2020 and reviewed the Child Protective Services database, then compared that period to the same time frame in 2019, 2018 and 2017.

Result: More reports of child mistreatment – 215 – were filed during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 204 during the same period in 2019, 199 in 2018 and 158 in 2017.

This is especially significant because CHOC’s ED has experienced a significantly lower ED patient census during the pandemic compared to pre-COVID days, says Dr. Mary Jane Piroutek, a CHOC ED attending physician.

Dr. Mary Jane Piroutek, CHOC ED attending physician

While sexual and physical abuse cases were down in the 3 ½-month period in 2020, cases of general neglect and medical neglect, as well as emotional abuse, were higher during COVID compared to the previous years.

Erika Jewell, manager of Case Management and Social Services at CHOC, put some of these numbers in context. In 2017, she reports, the rate of children in Orange County suffering abuse or neglect was 43.8 per 1,000, compared to 33.5 in 2012.

Of the 4,451 substantiated case of child abuse and neglect in Orange County in 2017, the vast majority – 3,204 – were cases of general neglect. Sexual abuse cases, in comparison, totaled 191.

“Our findings suggest the incidence of child neglect increased during the implementation of the stay-at-home guidelines,” says Dr. Piroutek, who spoke with Jewell and others on a panel on Research Day on Nov. 18, 2020.

Knowledge of such a trend, Dr. Piroutek explains, could help providers identify children at risk for maltreatment and, ultimately, provide an impetus to shape public policy and to improve the effectiveness with which resources are allocated to address the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Two new screening tools

Beginning in October 2019, the CHOC ED rolled out the first of two new screening tools aimed at making it easier for nurses and doctors to better identify patients at risk of abuse.

The first new screening tool being used in CHOC’s ED is TRAIN, for Timely Recognition of Abusive Injuries Collaborative. It is used to screen patients 6 months and younger.

The second screening tool, launched in July 2020, is CA-CDS, for Child Abuse – Clinical Decision Support. It is used to screen patients 11 years or younger. Components include a triage screen where nurses or doctors answer five questions, a pop-up computer alert that flags which patients may be at risk for physical abuse, a link to order sets and CHOC’s computerized suspected child abuse form.

With these two new tools, the CHOC ED estimates it can detect 50 percent more sentinel injuries than before. A sentinel injury is a seemingly trivial one that can be viewed as a “sentinel event” for much worse injuries in the future. Research shows that one-quarter of abused children had previous sentinel injuries.

The ED is collecting data through December 2021 to evaluate how well the new screening tools are helping healthcare workers detect cases of maltreatment, Dr. Piroutek says.

“It’s a more data-based and methodical approach; you have a computer that’s looking at data and flagging concerning patterns for you: ‘Hey, there’s something that might be abuse here,’” Dr. Piroutek explains.

The new screening tools will help CHOC better comply with treatment guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Piroutek notes.

“CHOC is committed to research for the betterment of our patients and children,” Dr. Piroutek says. “With the implementation of these new screening tools I am confident we can provide the best care for our patients.”

Screening for human sex trafficking has also become an important part of CHOC nursing care.

Sheryl Riccardi, Emergency Department manager at CHOC, says a steering group of about 20 associates has been established to help healthcare workers better identify, intervene and advocate for these victims, many of whom are minors and most of whom come from the Unites States.

Santa Ana is the largest hub of human sex trafficking in the state, she notes. The ED has begun screening 12- to 18-year-olds – regardless of their chief complaint for possible further evaluation – if a child reports a complaint indicating a high risk of abuse, Riccardi says.

CHOC, she adds, recently became a partner with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a law enforcement-led coalition that is committed to combating all forms of human trafficking through the rescue and long-term support of victims, prosecution of offenders, training of fellow law enforcement professionals, community awareness and effective public/private partnerships.

According to Waymakers and the Salvation Army, in 2019 there were 415 identified victims of human trafficking in Orange County, with sex trafficking victims totaling 359. The other victims were trafficked for labor.

CHOC is determined to do what it can to find and help these victims.

“We’ve very passionate about this,” Riccardi says.

Learn more about how to identify child abuse.

Seminal study of COVID-19 infections at Orange County schools nears completion

Two doctors – one a rising star in infectious disease research, the other a nationally known pediatric pulmonologist – are nearing completion of a seminal study on COVID-19 transmission at four Orange County schools and how closely students and staff are following mitigation procedures such as wearing face coverings.

The doctors believe the study is the first of its kind in the country, and that it could shed light on such critical issues such as the role that kids play in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that has led to the deaths of some 300,000 Americans and counting.

“We’ll never understand COVID-19 disease until we understand it in children,” says Dr. Dan Cooper, who treats kids with lung conditions at CHOC and who serves as director of UC Irvine’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science.

Dr. Cooper was reiterating a comment made by UCI colleague Dr. Donald Forthal, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the university, in the early stages of the pandemic.

Dr. Cooper is a multiple principal investigator of the O.C. school study along with Dr. E.R. Chulie Ulloa, a CHOC infectious disease specialist and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine.

Drs. Coopers and Ulloa provided an update on their novel study of four O.C. middle and high schools during a recent presentation on Research Day. The study, a partnership of CHOC, UCI Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency, began at the end of October and will conclude before Christmas.

Results are expected during the first quarter of 2021.

“We understand little about the immune responses to COVID-19 in children, but hopefully we’ll be able to shed some light with this study,” Dr. Ulloa says.

Vaccinations in adult U.S. healthcare workers began in mid-December at a time when the country remains in the grips of a terrible increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths – the dreaded “second surge” healthcare experts predicted would happen this winter.

“We’re just beginning to understand and accumulate the knowledge we need to eventually make definitive statements about SARS-CoV-2 transmission in children,” Dr. Cooper says. “This information will ultimately inform decisions around vaccinations in the pediatric population.”

PRELIMINARY RESULTS

Although the numbers continue to increase as the study nears completion, as of mid-November — when Drs. Cooper and Ulloa provided their update on Research Day — 187 students and 100 staff members at four demographically diverse schools had undergone nasal-swab tests, with none testing positive for COVID-19, Dr. Ulloa reported.

Additionally, nearly 90 percent of those students agreed to have their blood drawn to check for antibodies that showed they had been exposed to the novel coronavirus. The positivity rate for those tests came back at 8.5 percent.

This number is encouraging, Dr. Ulloa says. She explains that nearly all these COVID-19 antibody-positive students were completely asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.

“We’re not sure yet if this positivity rate shows that children do indeed have protection (against COVID-19), but it’s certainly a positive sign,” Dr. Ulloa says. “We will conduct more research in the lab to see if those antibodies are able to neutralize or inhibit the replication of the virus.”

The preliminary results of the study – which involves students from a charter school and a public school in Santa Ana, a charter school in another city that primarily serves students with special needs and a private school elsewhere whose students come from middle- to upper-class families – suggests that children likely are not super-spreaders of COVID-19, Dr. Cooper says.

“We still don’t know why that appears to be the case,” he says.

In addition to testing for COVID-19 with the nasal swabs, the school project team – which includes a total of nearly two-dozen people – also is testing for 21 other respiratory infections, such as the common cold, in the students. The thinking is that these additional tests will help determine how well students are following COVID-19 mitigation measures such as social distancing and frequent washing of hands – which should help prevent them from catching many viral diseases.

“We hope to be able to see if there’s a relationship between how well the school is able to put into place mitigation procedures and the degree of viral infection,” Dr. Cooper notes.

The pool of students involved in the research project has expanded to kids ages 7 to 17, from ages 10-15 at the onset. Dr. Cooper points out although data are accumulating through public health agencies on SARS-CoV-2 in school-aged children, there are few, if any studies like this one that involves students and school staff as research volunteers and who must consent to participate. These types of studies can often add to our knowledge of disease to a much greater extent than simple descriptions of ongoing data, he says.

“In addition, we’re capturing data from an age group that hasn’t been involved in vaccine clinical trials before,” Dr. Ulloa adds, “and these data may shed light on efforts to test COVID-19 vaccines in the future.”

Drs. Cooper and Ulloa both praised the cooperation of school officials and students in allowing them to carry out this seminal study, in which participants also receive free of charge a complete blood count to check for anemia and a full lipid screening to check the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in their blood.

“In order to pull this off,” Dr. Cooper says, “we had to have very close relationships with the schools, with the parents, and with the kids.”

Dr. Ulloa’s fluency in Spanish and leadership has helped a lot, he says. So has her serving as a strong pediatrician-scientist role model for the children.

“We’ve really been active in the community for a while, which has helped establish trust,” Dr. Ulloa says.

Dr. Cooper notes that the school research team already is talking to the National Institutes of Health about putting together a project to follow middle- and high-school kids who are infected with the coronavirus over the next five years to determine the long-term effects on such things as cognitive development and the role of exercise in keeping the disease in check.