As COVID-19 wanes, CHOC’s medical epidemiologist, Dr. Jasjit Singh, recalls 2016 dental clinic outbreak

As the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weaken, Dr. Jasjit Singh, CHOC’s medical epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention and control, recalls a ghost of outbreaks past.

Nearly five years ago, a mysterious outbreak of oral infections that eventually was traced to a clinic in Anaheim alarmed parents and dominated the local news.

The health crisis spurred Dr. Singh and a multidisciplinary team at CHOC, working with several community partners, to search for answers – and to provide optimal care for the patients, whose median age was 6.

Over 100 children were admitted to CHOC for evaluation, of whom 70 were confirmed cases, hospitalized for an average of more than a week.

Some suffered permanent tooth loss – as many as six teeth.

The culprit: a Mycobacterial abscessus infection that was detected after each child underwent a pulpotomy procedure, or “baby root canal,” to remove or treat an infected tooth at the Anaheim clinic between Jan. 1 and Sept. 6, 2016.

The outbreak turned out to be the largest ever of invasive Mycobacterial abscessus infections associated with a dental practice. The commonly occurring M. abscessus bacteria is found in water, dust, and soil, but it’s an uncommon cause of healthcare-associated infection.

Between July and September 2016, three patients were admitted to CHOC with atypical infections. All had some combination of facial cellulitis, dental abscess, and/or cervical adenitis that had been present for weeks.

“We had our first child present with what appeared to be a really unusual infection,” Dr. Singh recalls. “Our first thought was, ‘What’s wrong with this child’s immune system?’

“When the second child came in, one of my very astute colleagues, Dr. Negar Ashouri, ascertained that the child had been treated at the same dental clinic. She alerted the OC Health Care Agency immediately, who soon found unexplained symptoms brewing in other kids.” 

A mobilized effort

The California Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Dental Board of California worked with the OC Health Care Agency (OCHCA) to investigate the infections.

The team at CHOC helped OCHCA with the epidemiologic and diagnostic probe. Of 1,081 at-risk patients, 71 case patients (22 confirmed; 49 probable) were identified.

Here at CHOC, 27 of the most severely affected children were treated with a complex regimen of antibiotics, including clofazimine, marking the largest number of children to ever receive that medication outside of treatment for leprosy.

Details of the work of Dr. Singh and many others recently was published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Infectious Disease Society of America.

Publication of the paper, “Invasive Mycobacterium abscessus Outbreak at a Pediatric Dental Clinic,” was delayed a year and a half by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Singh says.

The infections were caused by untreated municipal water the Anaheim clinic was using for drilling and irrigation during pulpotomy procedures. Because pulpotomies are not considered surgical procedure, sterile water is not required.

A change in state water standards

The work of Dr. Singh and an army of others led to a change in water standards for pediatric dental procedures in California.

In September 2018, the governor signed into law a bill that specified as unprofessional conduct the use of water that is not sterile or that does not contain recognized disinfecting or antibacterial properties when performing dental procedures on exposed dental pulp.

Dr. Singh is hopeful that the publication of the paper, whose listed authors include 11 CHOC physicians and three officials with the OC Health Care Agency, will lead to similar laws being enacted in other states.

As the paper puts it, “The authors believe the measure adopted in California for the use of sterile water for all pulpotomies is an appropriate standard which we would like to see embraced by the American Dental Association and state dental boards around the country.”

Dr. Singh credits the multi-disciplinary team for caring for the patients. The team included specialists in infectious disease, oral surgeons, ENT doctors, radiologists, dentists, pharmacists, and staff members of Providence Speech and Hearing, among others.

“These were normal, healthy children that were affected,” Dr. Singh says. “The multi-disciplinary coordination was a huge part of the success of this story. Still, many of the patients who lost permanent teeth will need dental rehabilitation in the future. It was a very difficult period for these families.

“We talked to national experts and really delved through whatever literature was out there,” Dr. Singh adds. “We all came together to get the kids and families through this with the least morbidity and the best long-term outcome possible.” 

Read about Dr. Jasjit Singh and Dr. Antonio Arrieta earning a global distinction for excellence.

Virtual pediatric lecture series: COVID-19 in children

The CHOC virtual pediatric lecture series continues with a session on COVID-19 in children.

This online discussion will be held Thursday, Oct. 15 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and is designed for general practitioners, family practitioners and other healthcare providers.

Dr. Antonio Arrieta, medical director of pediatric infectious disease at CHOC, and Dr. Jasjit Singh, assistant medical director and medical director of infection prevention and control, will present information on COVID-19 in children and the world of infectious disease. Particular focus will be given to counseling patients about the importance of influenza and other routine vaccines this fall. Given the current pandemic and concerns that flu season may exacerbate it, this timely lecture is ideal for providers looking to address preventative matters with patients.

This virtual lecture is part of a series provided by CHOC that aims to bring the latest, most relevant news to community providers. You can register here.

CHOC is accredited by the California Medical Association (CMA) to provide continuing medical education for physicians and has designated this live activity for a maximum of one AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™.

Please contact CHOC Business Development at 714-509-4291 or BDINFO@choc.org with any questions.

How COVID-19 survivors can support others through plasma donation

For Steve Emfinger, donating his blood plasma at CHOC was fast, painless and a way to give meaning to his battle with COVID-19.

“It was very simple,” he said. “And to know it’s helping kids is very cool.”

Man donates plasma to help COVID-19 patients
Steve with his COVID-19 convalescent plasma donation at CHOC Blood Bank.

Registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the CHOC Blood Bank is available to collect and process blood plasma donations from COVID-19 survivors. These donations are being used to help patients at CHOC and throughout the community.

“We’re still learning about COVID-19, but it’s possible that those who have recovered from the disease have produced antibodies to protect them from the infection,” says Dr. Antonio Arrieta, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who is studying the use of convalescent COVID-19 plasma at CHOC. “If so, their blood plasma would contain these antibodies and may be helpful in the treatment of COVID-19 disease in others.”

Since CHOC began collecting and processing blood plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients this spring, more than a dozen CHOC patients have benefited.

And as COVID-19 diagnoses continue to mount in Orange County and fall approaches, the need for blood plasma donations will only grow at CHOC, Dr. Arrieta says.

A surprising diagnosis

Typically, an early riser with boundless energy, Steve just felt zapped in late winter. Attributing the lethargy to two back-to-back trips he’d just taken, Steve decided to work from home. 

Though his symptoms – including a slight cough and dizziness – were minor, Steve’s energy shift was so atypical that he ultimately decided to go to a local hospital. There, he was tested for the flu and strep throat and had a chest scan, which all came back negative.

Steve had one more test – for COVID-19. A couple days later, he got word the test was positive.

Steve hunkered down at home, and notified any friends, family and neighbors he’d been in contact within the weeks before his diagnosis. Some days he felt good – able to work remotely and cook meals – and others were much more challenging.

All in all, though, Steve felt fortunate to have mild symptoms, never experiencing a fever, body aches or significant respiratory problems, despite a lifelong mild case of asthma.

“I think I’m blessed to know that I had minor symptoms and was able to get through it and my family didn’t get sick,” he says.

As Steve’s diagnosis came early into the pandemic’s spread in Southern California, he was initially reluctant to share his story with a broader network of friends, family and colleagues. But as he got more comfortable, Steve’s decision to tell others proved fortuitous.

A friend who worked at CHOC told Steve about the COVID-19 convalescent plasma program and how badly donations were needed.

“I had heard that blood plasma was needed, but I didn’t know where to find a donor center,” he said. “I called CHOC the next day to make an appointment.”

The process to donate plasma to support COVID-19 patients
Steve has already donated plasma twice at CHOC to help support others fighting COVID-19.

Steps to donate

Potential donors must meet some criteria to be eligible:

  1. Donors must show laboratory test proof of their COVID-19 diagnosis either through a diagnostic test (nasopharyngeal swab) at the time they were sick, or a positive serological test for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies after they recovered.
  2. Donors must have been symptom-free for at least 14 days before they donate.
  3. They must meet all other health requirements for blood donors.
  4. Though donors may be male or female, female donors will need to meet some additional requirements that the Blood Bank team will help explain further.

Confirming these requirements takes about a week. Once donors are confirmed and at the Blood Bank, the simple donation process takes about two hours. Donors can return every 28 days to donate again.

Steve is already on his second donation at CHOC and plans to continue in the future – in addition to donating blood and platelets.

“To help someone else makes it all worth it,” he says.

To schedule an appointment or learn more, call the CHOC Blood Bank at 714-509-8339.

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in children (MIS-C) and COVID-19: What providers should know

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, is a new syndrome that has been reported worldwide in an increasing number of children who had or were exposed to COVID-19. MIS-C shares many characteristics with Kawasaki disease, an inflammatory disease of childhood that can affect blood vessels.

This Q & A with Dr. Negar Ashouri, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at CHOC, explores what providers should know about MIS-C, including recently released guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What is MIS-C?

MIS-C is a rare complication temporally associated with COVID-19. Here is the case definition, per a U.S. Centers for Disease Control Health Advisory:

  • An individual aged <21 years presenting with fever (>38.0°C for ≥24 hours, or report of subjective fever lasting ≥24 hours); laboratory evidence of inflammation (Including, but not limited to, one or more of the following: an elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), fibrinogen, procalcitonin, D-dimer, ferritin, lactic acid dehydrogenase (LDH), or interleukin 6 (IL-6), elevated neutrophils, reduced lymphocytes and low albumin.); and evidence of clinically severe illness requiring hospitalization, with multisystem (≥2) organ involvement (cardiac, renal, respiratory, hematologic, gastrointestinal, dermatologic, or neurological); AND
  • No alternative plausible diagnoses; AND
  • Positive for current or recent SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) infection by RT-PCR, serology, or antigen test; or COVID-19 exposure within the four weeks prior to the onset of symptoms.

Is MIS-C dangerous?

MIS-C can be serious, but most children have recovered. MIS-C, like Kawasaki disease, can be a very uncomfortable illness because it causes prolonged fever, irritation and inflammation in many tissues of the body. The main concern with MIS-C and Kawasaki disease is heart and blood vessel involvement.

Conditions that involve inflammation in the heart, such as MIS-C or Kawasaki disease, can affect the heart in different ways. They may cause the heart muscle to be irritated and inflamed, affecting the overall function of the heart.

They may also weaken the wall of one or more of the coronary arteries causing them to bulge or balloon out. Blood clots can form in the ballooned area and possibly block the blood flow through the coronary artery. When this happens, the heart muscle will no longer receive an adequate supply of oxygen-rich blood, and the heart muscle can be damaged.

Dr. Negar Ashouri, pediatric infectious disease specialist, CHOC

What are the symptoms of MIS-C?

Though clinicians have described differing presentations, sign and symptoms can include an ongoing fever, inflammation detected by blood test, and evidence of organ dysfunction or shock. Here are additional common symptoms:

  • Kawasaki disease-like features including conjunctivitis; red eyes; red or swollen hands and feet; rash; red cracked lips; and swollen glands. Some children have presented with coronary artery enlargement or aneurysms. Some children may present with  more gastrointestinal (abdominal pain or diarrhea) or neurologic (headaches/meningitis) manifestations.
  • Toxic shock syndrome-like features with hemodynamic instability.
  • Cytokine storm/macrophage activation or hyperinflammatory features.
  • Shortness of breath suggestive of congestive heart failure.
  • Respiratory symptoms typically reported in adults with COVID-19 may not be present in pediatric patients with MIS-C.

Patients with the following symptoms ought to seek emergency care:

  • Persistent fevers
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that does not go away
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Severe abdominal pain

How is MIS-C diagnosed?

Children who present with symptoms may undergo expanded laboratory testing and a cardiac workup that may include:

  • Routine screening labs including CBC with diff, CRP, CMP, and appropriate cultures;
  • If expanded work-up is warranted for hospitalized patients, it may include  troponin, pro-B-type natriuretic peptide, triglycerides, creatine kinase, ,  D-dimer, prothrombin time/partial thromboplastin time, international normalized ratio,  ferritin, lactic acid dehydrogenase,  and fibrinogen, if not already conducted;
  • COVID-19 testing performed with RT-PCR assay and serologic testing in every case;
  • echocardiogram;
  • electrocardiogram;
  • chest X-ray; and
  • abdominal ultrasound.

When should a provider suspect MIS-C?

Per the AAP, any child with suspected MIS-C should also be evaluated for infectious and noninfectious etiologies.

An initial sign may be a persistent fever without a clear clinical source. Providers should be suspicious of any fever accompanied by symptoms concerning in their severity or coincident with recent exposure to COVID-19.

Some children clinically progress rapidly and may develop hemodynamic compromise. These children should be followed and cared for in a hospital with tertiary pediatric/cardiac intensive care units.


How is MIS-C treated?

Kawasaki and MIS-C are best treated in the hospital by a qualified multidisciplinary group of pediatric specialists who will work to reduce inflammation and minimize long-term heart damage.

Here is the APP guidance for treatment:

  • Some patients with MIS-C have been treated with IVIG, Occasionally,  Patients have also been treated with steroid therapy  and or biologics that may require taper of the medications overtime.
  • Given the need for early intervention and the need to initiate treatment for multiple possible etiologies, many patients have received concurrent antibiotic therapy.
  • A multidisciplinary group is generally involved which may include Infectious disease specialists, cardiologists, intensivists, hospitalists and rheumatologists.

What is the follow-up for patients with MIS-C?

Children who have had serious cases of MIS-C should have close outpatient follow-up care by a group of specialists which may include cardiology, hematology and infectious diseases.

Refer a patient to the infectious disease team at CHOC.

Mental health resources to share with patients, families during COVID-19

We know living through a pandemic can compound existing mental health problems or introduce new ones for young patients. And for many providers, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a flurry of tough questions from patients and their families: How do I explain this to my children? How do I help my child understand why their birthday party is canceled? How do I maintain normalcy while my child is out of school and stuck at home?

If you’re also fielding these questions from worried caregivers, this compilation of resources from CHOC — with more to come — can help address these questions and more:

Information, strategies for children, teens with depression, anxiety

Tips for parents of teens

Stress-busting tips

Strategies for kids of all ages

En Español

Self-care tips for parents

Find more information to share with patients and families about COVID-19 at choc.org/coronavirus.