Conference Coverage

Before the COVID-19 surge hits your facility, take steps to boost capacity



Ramping up health system capacity for the coming surge of U.S. COVID-19 cases requires a commitment to boosting safety, capacity, and communication, according to a physician leader and a health workforce expert.

Polly Pittman, PhD, is hearing a lot of concern among health care workers that it’s difficult to find definitive and accurate information about how best to protect themselves and their families, she said during a webinar by the Alliance for Health Policy titled Health System Capacity: Protecting Frontline Health Workers. “The knowledge base is evolving very quickly,” said Dr. Pittman, Fitzhugh Mullan Professor of Health Workforce Equity at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, Washington.

Dr. Stephen Parodi, executive vice president of external affairs, communications, and brand at the Permanente Federation and associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group, Vallejo, Calif.

Dr. Stephen Parodi

Stephen Parodi, MD, agreed that effective communication is job one in the health care workplace during the crisis. “I can’t stress enough ... that communications are paramount and you can’t overcommunicate,” said Dr. Parodi, executive vice president of external affairs, communications, and brand at the Permanente Federation and associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group, Vallejo, Calif.

“We’re in a situation of confusion and improvisation right now,” regarding protection of health care workers, said Dr. Pittman. The potential exists for “a downward spiral where you have the lack of training, the shortages in terms of protective gear, weakening of guidelines, and confusion regarding guidelines at federal level, creating a potential cascade” that may result in “moral distress and fatigue. ... That’s not occurring now, but that’s the danger” unless the personal protective equipment (PPE) situation is adequately addressed very soon, she said.

Dr. Pittman also pointed out the concerns that many of the 18 million U.S. health care workers have for their families should they themselves fall ill or transmit coronavirus to family members. “The danger exists of a mass exodus. People don’t have to show up at work, and they won’t show up at work if they don’t feel supported and safe.”

Dr. Parodi said that the Permanente organization is on a better footing than many workplaces. “We actually had an early experience because of the work that we did to support the Diamond Princess cruise ship evacuees from Yokahama in February.” That ship was quarantined upon arrival in Yokahama on Feb. 3 because a passenger had a confirmed test for SARS-CoV-2 infection, and a quarter of the 428 Americans on board subsequently tested positive. Most of them were evacuated to California or Texas. “That actually gave us the experience for providing care within the hospital setting – and also for containment strategies,” he said.

“We quickly understood that we needed to move to a mitigation strategy,” said Dr. Parodi. Use of PPE has been “tailored for how the virus is spread.” In the absence of the risk of aerosol transmission from certain procedures, health care workers use gowns, gloves, surgical masks, and goggles.

Because of anticipated “supply chain shortfalls,” Dr. Parodi said that his organization implemented Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for reuse and extended use of N95 respirators early on. “Even if you’re not in a locale that’s been hit, you need to be on wartime footing for preserving PPE.”

Telehealth, said Dr. Parodi, has been implemented “in a huge way” throughout the Permanente system. “We have reduced primary care visits by 90% in the past week, and also subspecialty visits by 50%. … A large amount of the workforce can work from home. We turned off elective surgeries more than a week ago to reduce the number of patients who are requiring intensive care.” Making these changes means the organization is more prepared now for a surge they expect in the coming weeks.

Dr. Pittman voiced an opinion widely shared by those who are implementing large-scale telehealth efforts “We’re going to learn a lot. Many of the traditional doctor-patient visits can be done by telemedicine in the future.”

Knowledge about local trends in infection rates is key to preparedness. “We’ve ramped up testing, to understand what’s happening in the community,” said Dr. Parodi, noting that test turnaround time is currently running 8-24 hours. Tightening up this window can free up resources when an admitted patient’s test is negative.

Still, some national projections forecast a need for hospital beds at two to three times current capacity – or even more, said Dr. Parodi.

He noted that Permanente is “working hand in glove with state authorities throughout the country.” Efforts include establishing alternative sites for assessment and testing, as well as opening up closed hospitals and working with the National Guard and the Department of Defense to prepare mobile hospital units that can be deployed in areas with peak infection rates. “Having all of those options available to us is critically important,” he said.

To mitigate potential provider shortages, Dr. Pittman said, “All members of the care team could potentially do more” than their current licenses allow. Expanding the scope of practice for pharmacists, clinical laboratory staff, licensed practical nurses, and medical assistants can help with efficient care delivery.

Other measures include expedited licensing for near-graduates and nonpracticing foreign medical graduates, as well as relicensing for retired health care personnel and those who are not currently working directly with patients, she said.

Getting these things done “requires leadership on behalf of the licensing bodies,” as well as coordination with state regulatory authorities, Dr. Pittman pointed out.

Dr. Parodi called for state and federal governments to implement emergency declarations that suspend some existing health codes to achieve repurposing of staff. Getting these measures in place now will allow facilities “to be able to provide that in-time training now before the surge occurs. ... We are actively developing plans knowing that there’s going to be a need for more critical care.”

The game plan at Permanente, he said, is to repurpose critical care physicians to provide consultations to multiple hospitalists who are providing the bulk of frontline care. At the same time, they plan to repurpose other specialists to backfill the hospitalists, and to repurpose family medicine physicians to supplement staff in emergency departments and other frontline intake areas.

All the organizational measures being taken won’t be in vain if they increase preparedness for the long battle ahead, he said. “We need to double down on the work. ... We need to continue social distancing, and we’ve got to ramp up testing. Until we do that we have to hold the line on basic public health measures.”

Dr. Parodi is employed by Permanente. The panelists reported no disclosures relevant to the presentation, which was sponsored by the Alliance for Health Policy, the Commonwealth Fund, and the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

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