Planning for a psychiatric COVID-19–positive unit


2. Infection control and personal protective equipment: PCUs require modifications or departures from the typical inpatient free-ranging environment in which common areas are provided for patients to engage in a community of care, including group therapy (such as occupational, recreational, Alcoholics Anonymous, and social work groups).

  • Isolation: PCUs must consider whether they will require patients to isolate to their rooms or to allow modified or limited access to “public” or “community” areas. While there do not appear to be standard recommendations from the CDC or other public health entities regarding negative pressure or any specific room ventilation requirements, it is prudent to work with local infectious disease experts on protocols. Important considerations include spatial planning for infection control areas to don and doff appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate workspace to prevent contamination of non–COVID-19 work areas. Approaches can include establishing clearly identified and visually demarcated infection control “zones” (often referred to as “hot, warm, and cold zones”) that correspond to specific PPE requirements for staff. In addition, individuals should eat in their own rooms or designated areas because use of common areas for meals can potentially lead to aerosolized spread of the virus.
  • Cohorting: Generally, PCUs should consider admitting only COVID-19–positive patients to a PCU to avoid exposure to other patients. Hospitals and health systems should determine protocols and locations for testing and managing “patients under investigation” for COVID-19, which should precede admission to the PCU.
  • PPE: It is important to clearly establish and communicate PPE requirements and procedures for direct physical contact versus no physical contact (for example, visual safety checks). Identify clear supply chains for PPE and hand sanitizer.

3. Medical management and consultation: PCUs should establish clear pathways for accessing consultation from medical consultants. It may be ideal, in addition to standard daily psychiatric physician rounding, to have daily internal medicine rounding and/or medical nursing staff working on the unit. Given the potential of COVID-19–positive patients to rapidly devolve from asymptomatic to acutely ill, it is necessary to establish protocols for the provision of urgent medical care 24/7 and streamlined processes for transfer to a medical unit.

Clear protocols should be established to address any potential signs of decompensation in the respiratory status of a PCU unit, including administration of oxygen and restrictions (or appropriate precautions) related to aerosolizing treatment such as nebulizers or positive airway pressure.

4. Code blue protocol: Any emergent medical issues, including acute respiratory decompensation, should trigger a Code Blue response that has been specifically designed for COVID-19–positive patients, including considerations for proper PPE during resuscitation efforts.

Dr. Thomas B. Strouse

5. Psychiatric staffing and workflows: When possible, it may be preferable to engage volunteer medical and nursing staff for the PCU, as opposed to mandating participation. Take into consideration support needs, including education and training about safe PPE practices, processes for testing health care workers, return-to-work guidance, and potential alternate housing.
  • Telehealth: Clinicians (such as physicians, social workers, occupational therapists) should leverage and maximize the use of telemedicine to minimize direct or prolonged exposure to infectious disease risks.
  • Nursing: It is important to establish appropriate ratios of nursing and support staff for a COVID-19–positive psychiatry unit given the unique work flows related to isolation precautions and to ensure patient and staff safety. These ratios may take into account patient-specific needs, including the need for additional staff to perform constant observation for high-risk patients, management of agitated patients, and sufficient staff to allow for relief and break-time from PPE. Admission and routine care processes should be adapted in order to limit equipment entering the room, such as computer workstations on wheels.
  • Medication administration procedures: Develop work flows related to PPE and infection control when retrieving and administering medications.
  • Workspace: Designate appropriate workspace for PCU clinicians to access computers and documents and to minimize use of non–COVID-19 unit work areas.

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