The execution phase
All the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were grouped together to COVID units, and the COVIDists were deployed to those units geographically. COVIDists were given lighter than usual patient loads to deal with the extra time needed for donning and doffing of PPE and for coordination with specialists. COVIDists were almost the only clinicians physically visiting the patients in most cases, and they became the “eyes and ears” of specialists since the specialists were advised to minimize exposure and pursue telemedicine consults. The COVIDists were also undertaking the most challenging part of the care – talking to families about end-of-life issues and the futility of aggressive care in certain patients with preexisting conditions.
Some COVIDists were deployed to the ICU to work alongside the intensivists and became an invaluable resource in ICU management when the ICU census skyrocketed during the initial phase of the outbreak. This helped in tiding the health system over during the initial crisis. Within a short time, we shifted away from an early intubation strategy, and most of the ICU patients were managed in the intermediate care units on high flow oxygen along with the awake-proning protocol. The COVIDists exclusively managed these units. They led multidisciplinary rounds two times a day with the ICU, rapid response team (RRT), the palliative care team, and the nursing team. This step drastically decreased the number of intubations, RRT activations, reduced ICU census,3 and helped with hospital capacity and patient flow (Tables 2 and 3).
This strategy also helped build solidarity and camaraderie between all these groups, making the COVIDists feel that they were never alone and that the whole hospital supported them. We are currently evaluating clinical outcomes and attempting to identify effects on mortality, length of stay, days on the ventilator, and days in ICU.
The maintenance phase
It is already 2 months since the first devising COVIDists. There is no difference in sick callouts between COVIDists and non-COVIDists. One COVIDist and one non-COVIDist contracted the disease, but none of them required hospitalization. Although we initially thought that COVIDists would be needed for only a short period of time, the evolution of the disease is showing signs that it might be prolonged over the next several months. Hence, we are planning to continue COVIDist service for at least the next 6 months and reevaluate the need.
Hospital medicine leadership checked on COVIDists daily in regard to their physical health and, more importantly, their mental well-being. They were offered the chance to be taken off the schedule if they felt burned out, but no one wanted to come off their scheduled service before finishing their shifts. BlueCross MA recognized one of the COVIDists, Raghuveer Rakasi, MD, as a “hero on the front line.”4 In Dr. Rakasi’s words, “We took a nosedive into something without knowing its depth, and aware that we could have fatalities among ourselves. We took up new roles, faced new challenges, learned new things every day, evolving every step of the way. We had to change the way we practice medicine, finding new ways to treat patients, and protecting the workforce by limiting patient exposure, prioritizing investigations.” He added that “we have to adapt to a new normal; we should be prepared for this to come in waves. Putting aside our political views, we should stand united 6 feet apart, with a mask covering our brave faces, frequently washing our helping hands to overcome these uncertain times.”
The creation of a focused group of hospitalists called COVIDists and providing them with structured and rapid training (in various aspects of clinical care of COVID-19 patients, critical care/ventilator management, efficient and safe use of PPE) and daily information dissemination allowed our health system to prepare for the large volume of COVID-19 patients. It also helped in preserving the larger hospital workforce for a possible future surge.
The rapid development and implementation of the COVIDist strategy succeeded because of the intrinsic motivation of the providers to improve the outcomes of this high-risk patient population and the close collaboration of the stakeholders. Our institution remains successful in managing the pandemic in Western Massachusetts, with reserve capacity remaining even during the peak of the epidemic. A large part of this was because of creating and training a pool of COVIDists.
Dr. Medarametla is medical director, clinical operations, in the division of hospital medicine at Baystate Health, and assistant professor at University of Massachusetts, Worcester. Readers can contact him at. Dr. Prabhakaran is unit medical director, geriatrics unit, in the division of hospital medicine at Baystate Health and assistant professor at University of Massachusetts. Dr. Bryson is associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Baystate Health and assistant professor at University of Massachusetts. Dr. Umar is medical director, clinical operations, in the division of hospital medicine at Baystate Health. Dr. Natanasabapathy is division chief of hospital medicine at Baystate Health and assistant professor at University of Massachusetts.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Updated Jun 10, 2020..
2. Zhou F et al. Clinical course and risk factors for mortality of adult inpatients with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China: A retrospective cohort study..
3. Westafer LM et al. A transdisciplinary COVID-19 early respiratory intervention protocol: An implementation story..
4. Miller J. “Heroes on the front line: Dr. Raghuveer Rakasi.” Coverage. May 18, 2020.