Commentary

Planning for a psychiatric COVID-19–positive unit

Identifying key decision points is critical


 

Reports have emerged about the unique vulnerability of psychiatric hospitals to the ravages of COVID-19.

Dr. Erick Cheung

Dr. Erick H. Cheung

In a South Korea psychiatric hospital, 101 of 103 patients contracted SARS-CoV-2 during an outbreak; 7 eventually died.1,2 This report, among a few others, have led to the development of psychiatric COVID-19–positive units (PCU). However, it remains highly unclear how many are currently open, where they are located, or what their operations are like.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear to us that, as a public health measure, it would be necessary to test all patients for COVID-19 who were being considered for admission to our inpatient psychiatric units. We knew that we could not allow a medically asymptomatic “covertly” COVID-19–positive patient to be introduced to the social community of our inpatient units because of the risks of transmission to other patients and staff.

In coordination with our health system infection prevention experts, we have therefore required a confirmed negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction nasal swab performed no more than 48 hours prior to the time/date of acute psychiatric inpatient admission. Furthermore, as part of the broad health system response and surge planning, we were asked by our respective incident command centers to begin planning for a Psychiatric COVID-19–positive Unit (PCU) that might allow us to safely care for a cohort of patients needing such hospitalization.

It is worth emphasizing that the typical patient who is a candidate for a PCU is so acutely psychiatrically ill that they cannot be managed in a less restrictive environment than an inpatient psychiatric unit and, at the same time, is likely to not be medically ill enough to warrant admission to an internal medicine service in a general acute care hospital.

We have identified eight principles and critical decision points that can help inpatient units plan for the safe care of COVID-19–positive patients on a PCU.

1. Triage: Patients admitted to a PCU should be medically stable, particularly with regard to COVID-19 and respiratory symptomatology. PCUs should establish clear criteria for admission and discharge (or medical transfer). Examples of potential exclusionary criteria to a PCU include:

  • Respiratory distress, shortness of breath, hypoxia, requirement for supplemental oxygen, or requirement for respiratory therapy breathing treatments.
  • Fever, or signs of sepsis, or systemic inflammatory response syndrome.
  • Medical frailty, significant medical comorbidities, delirium, or altered mental status;
  • Requirements for continuous vital sign monitoring or of a monitoring frequency beyond the capacity of the PCU.

Discharge criteria may also include a symptom-based strategy because emerging evidence suggests that patients may be less infectious by day 10-14 of the disease course,3 and viral lab testing is very sensitive and will be positive for periods of time after individuals are no longer infectious. The symptom-based strategy allows for patients to not require retesting prior to discharge. However, some receiving facilities (for example residential or skilled nursing facilities) may necessitate testing, in which case a testing-based strategy can be used. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidelines for both types of strategies.4

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