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Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Autopsy Guidance FAQ 

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Autopsy Guidance FAQ 

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Postmortem swab specimens for COVID-19 testing should include an upper respiratory tract swab, nasopharyngeal (NP) swab, lower respiratory tract swab, and lung swab from each lung.

Separate swab specimens should be obtained for testing of other respiratory pathogens and other postmortem testing.

Formalin-fixed autopsy tissues should be obtained from lung, upper airway, and other major organs.

If only a postmortem NP swab is being collected, individuals in the room during specimen collection should be limited to healthcare personnel obtaining the specimen.

Since collection of NP swab specimens from deceased persons will not induce coughing or sneezing, a negative-pressure room is NOT required if ONLY an NP swab is being collected from the decedent.

In addition to postmortem specimens, any remaining specimens (eg, NP swab, sputum, serum, stool) that may have been collected prior to death should be retained.

Please refer to Interim Guidelines for Collecting, Handling, and Testing Clinical Specimens from Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for more information.

Obtain a postmortem nasopharyngeal (NP) swab specimen for COVID-19 testing.

Separate NP swabs should be obtained for testing of other respiratory pathogens.

If only a postmortem NP swab is being collected, individuals in the room during specimen collection should be limited to healthcare personnel obtaining the specimen.

Since collection of NP swab specimens from deceased persons will not induce coughing or sneezing, a negative-pressure room is NOT required if ONLY an NP swab is being collected from the decedent.

In addition to postmortem specimens, any remaining specimens (eg, NP swab, sputum, serum, stool) that may have been collected prior to death should be retained.

Please refer to Interim Guidelines for Collecting, Handling, and Testing Clinical Specimens from Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for more information.

Obtain postmortem swab specimens for testing of other respiratory pathogens.

Other postmortem microbiologic and infectious disease testing should be performed, as indicated.

Formalin-fixed autopsy tissues should be obtained from lung, upper airway, and other major organs.

If only a postmortem nasopharyngeal (NP) swab is being collected, individuals in the room during specimen collection should be limited to healthcare personnel obtaining the specimen.

Since collection of NP swab specimens from deceased persons will not induce coughing or sneezing, a negative-pressure room is NOT required if ONLY an NP swab is being collected from the decedent.

In addition to postmortem specimens, any remaining specimens (eg, NP swab, sputum, serum, stool) that may have been collected prior to death should be retained.

Please refer to Interim Guidelines for Collecting, Handling, and Testing Clinical Specimens from Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for more information.

Wear nonsterile, nitrile gloves when handling potentially infectious materials.

If there is a risk of cuts, puncture wounds, or other injuries that break the skin, wear heavy-duty gloves over the nitrile gloves.

Wear a clean, long-sleeved, fluid-resistant or impermeable gown to protect skin and clothing.

Use a plastic face shield or a face mask and goggles to protect the face, eyes, nose, and mouth from splashes of potentially infectious bodily fluids.

Use double surgical gloves interposed with a layer of cut-proof synthetic mesh gloves.

Use a fluid-resistant or impermeable gown.

Use a waterproof apron.

Wear goggles or a face shield.

Use a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)–certified disposable N95 respirator or higher. Powered, air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) with HEPA filters may provide increased worker comfort during extended autopsy procedures. When respirators are necessary to protect workers, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program in accordance with the OSHA Respiratory Protection standard (see Respiratory Protection) that includes medical examinations, fit-testing, and training.

Surgical scrubs, shoe covers, and a surgical cap should be used per routine protocols (see CDC pamphlet). Doff (take off) PPE carefully to avoid contaminating yourself and do so before leaving the autopsy suite or adjacent anteroom.

After removing PPE, discard the PPE in the appropriate laundry or waste receptacle. Reusable PPE (eg, goggles, face shields, and PAPRs) must be cleaned and disinfected according to the manufacturer’s recommendations before reuse.

Immediately after doffing PPE, wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. If hands are not visibly dirty and soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60-95% alcohol may be used.

However, if hands are visibly dirty, always wash hands with soap and water before using alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching the face with gloved or unwashed hands. Ensure that hand hygiene facilities are readily available at the point of use (eg, at or adjacent to the PPE doffing area).

Standard precautions, contact precautions, and airborne precautions with eye protection (goggles or a face shield) should be followed during the autopsy. Many of the following procedures are consistent with existing guidelines for safe work practices in the autopsy setting. Please refer to Interim Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Patients with Suspected or Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Healthcare Settings and Guidelines for Safe Work Practices in Human and Animal Medical Diagnostic Laboratories for more information.

Aerosol-generating procedures such as use of an oscillating bone saw should be avoided for known or suspected COVID-19 cases. Consider using hand shears as an alternative cutting tool. If an oscillating saw is used, attach a vacuum shroud to contain aerosols.

Allow only one person to cut at a given time.

Limit the number of personnel working in the autopsy suite at any given time to the minimum number of people necessary to safely conduct the autopsy.

Limit the number of personnel working on the human body at any given time.

Use a biosafety cabinet for the handling and examination of smaller specimens and other containment equipment whenever possible.

Use caution when handling needles or other sharps, and dispose of contaminated sharps in puncture-proof, labeled, closable sharps containers.

A logbook including names, dates, and activities of all workers participating in the postmortem and cleaning of the autopsy suite should be kept to assist in future follow up, if necessary. Include custodian staff entering after hours or during the day.

Autopsies on known or suspected COVID-19 cases should be conducted in airborne infection isolation rooms (AIIRs). These rooms are at negative pressure to surrounding areas, have a minimum of 6 air changes per hour (ACH) for existing structures and 12 ACH for renovated or new structures, and have air exhausted directly outside or through a HEPA filter.

Doors to the room should be kept closed except during entry and egress.

If an AIIR is not available, ensure the room is negative pressure with no air recirculation to adjacent spaces.

A portable HEPA recirculation unit could be placed in the room to provide further reduction in aerosols.

Local airflow control (ie, laminar flow systems) can be used to direct aerosols away from personnel.

If use of an AIIR or HEPA unit is not possible, the procedure should be performed in the most protective environment possible.

Air should never be returned to the building interior, but should be exhausted outdoors, away from areas of human traffic or gathering spaces and away from other air intake systems.

Implementing proper biosafety and infection control practices is critical when collecting specimens. Please refer to Interim Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines for Handling and Processing Specimens Associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for additional information.

For suspected COVID-19 cases, collect and test postmortem nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs and, if an autopsy is performed, lower respiratory tract specimens (lung swabs).

If the diagnosis of COVID-19 was established before death, collection of these specimens for COVID-19 testing may not be necessary. Medical examiners, coroners, and pathologists should work with their local or state health department to determine the capacity for testing postmortem swab specimens.

Use only synthetic fiber swabs with plastic shafts. Do not use calcium alginate swabs or swabs with wooden shafts, as they may contain substances that inactivate some viruses and inhibit polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

Place swabs immediately into sterile tubes containing 2-3 mL of viral transport media.

NP and lung swab specimens should be kept in separate vials.

Refrigerate specimens at 2-8°C and ship overnight to the CDC on ice pack.

Insert a swab into the nostril parallel to the palate.

Leave the swab in place for a few seconds to absorb secretions.

Swab both NP areas with the same swab.

Collect one swab from each lung (left and right).

Options for lung swab collection include the following and may depend on the institution’s standard practices or type of autopsy procedure (eg, full or in situ autopsy):

Store specimens at 2-8°C for up to 72 hours after collection.

If a delay in testing or shipping is expected, store specimens at -70°C or below.

Separate postmortem specimens (eg, NP or lung swabs) should be collected for routine testing of respiratory pathogens at either clinical or public health laboratories. Note that clinical laboratories should NOT attempt viral isolation from specimens collected from known or suspected COVID-19 cases.

Other postmortem specimen collection and evaluations should be directed by the decedent’s clinical and exposure history, scene investigation, and gross autopsy findings, and it may include routine bacterial cultures, toxicology, and other studies.

The preferred specimens would be a minimum of 8 blocks and fixed tissue specimens representing samples from the respiratory sites listed below in addition to specimens from major organs (including liver, spleen, kidney, heart, and GI tract) and any other tissues showing significant gross pathology. The recommended respiratory sites include the following:

Collection of tissue samples roughly 4-5 mm in thickness (ie, sample would fit in a tissue cassette) is recommended for optimal fixation.

The volume of formalin used to fix tissues should be 10 times the volume of tissue.

Place tissue in 10% buffered formalin for 3 days (72 hours) for optimal fixation.

Overview

What Are the Appropriate Collection Procedures If an Autopsy Is Performed for a Suspected Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Case?

What Are the Appropriate Collection Procedures If an Autopsy Is Not Performed for a Suspected Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Case?

What Are the Appropriate Collection Procedures If an Autopsy Is Performed for a Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Case?

What Are the Personal Protective Equipment Recommendations for Autopsies on Suspected or Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Decedents?

What General Precautions Should Be Taken When Performing an Autopsy on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Decedents?

What Are Recommended Collection Procedures for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Postmortem Specimens?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1. Collection and Submission of Postmortem Specimens from Deceased Persons with Known or Suspected COVID-19. March 2020 (Interim Guidance). Available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-postmortem-specimens.html. March 25, 2020; Accessed: March 31, 2020.

Medscape. Medscape Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center. Available at https://www.medscape.com/resource/coronavirus. Accessed: March 31, 2020.

Medscape Drugs & Diseases 

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Autopsy Guidance FAQ 

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