Sleep Strategies

COVID-19 and impact on sleep medicine practices



Since reported in late 2019 in Wuhan China, the disease named “novel coronavirus disease 2019” (COVID-19), caused by the virus referred to as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-causing Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread widely to many parts of the world. As of April 13, 2020, a total of 210 countries reported more than 1.9 million cases, resulting in more than 119,000 deaths.1 All 50 states have reported cases of COVID-19 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and most US states are reporting community spread. While levels of COVID-19 activity vary by region, the CDC has reported that the US remains in the acceleration phase of the pandemic, and that widespread transmission is expected.

On March 18, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) advised2 that all elective surgeries and nonessential medical, surgical, and dental procedures should be delayed to promote physical distancing, preserve personal protective equipment (PPE), and enable health-care workers (HCW) to redirect work to high-need areas. California was the first to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, and by April, leaders in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico issued similar stay-at-home orders. The White House has announced that physical distancing should continue until at least April 30. With the potential for an explosion of new cases that could overwhelm health-care resources, “business as usual” ceased to exist practically overnight.

The speed with which these events transpired, the demand to tailor response within days or even hours, the lack of robust data to support decision-making, the possibility of spread by asymptomatic carriers, and the potential risk for airborne, as well as droplet and fecal-oral spread, caused sleep medicine clinicians to rely on expert consensus and clinical judgment. The goal of such guidance has been to optimize care to patients with sleep disorders, while protecting the health and safety of all. Sleep medicine practices have had to balance efforts to reduce viral exposure and transmission, the need to triage health-care resources and personnel, and maintain access to care.

General clinical measures

From the outset, in areas of community spread, sleep medicine practices were called to adapt to now-standard measures, such as provider self-quarantine if ill or exposed, in-person clinic triage strategies for patients and staff prior to entrance to facilities to rapidly identify people with respiratory illness (eg, temperature monitoring), elimination of nonessential visitors, and infection control measures such as vigilant cleaning and appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) during patient interactions. Typical issues facing sleep medicine practices include the need to prioritize urgent or emergency care, track canceled or postponed visits, and maintain access to communication with patients, the health-care team, payors, and employers.

Infection mitigation recommendations: sleep laboratories and ambulatory practices

Diagnostic testing

By mid-March, relatively early in the course of the outbreak in the US, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) released recommendations for sleep clinics and laboratories regarding continuation of in-lab diagnostic, split-night, and titration studies, as well as clinical interactions and telemedicine, taking into account the CDC mitigation strategies3 which vary according to level of community transmission or impact of COVID-19.

This advisory was updated repeatedly over the ensuing weeks, most recently on April 8, as community-based spread increased. The AASM now strongly urges all sleep clinicians to postpone in-laboratory polysomnography (PSG) for adults and children, both diagnostic and positive airway pressure (PAP) titrations, except in emergencies. Data regarding adherence with these recommendations are lacking; anecdotal reports suggest that sleep medicine communities most heavily affected by the community spread are indeed following this practice.

The AASM guidance also advises use of home sleep apnea testing (HSAT) with consideration of single-use components or devices, use of mail-in recorders, and/or removal of reusable devices from service for 72 hours between patients.

Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy

The potential for PAP devices to promote the aerosolization of viral particles, which could increase transmission to others on shared ventilation networks in homes and health-care settings, requires careful attention.

Generally, exhaled particle size depends on multiple characteristics, including the force and pressure at generation and environmental conditions (eg, temperature, relative humidity, and air flow). Large-size particles remain suspended in the air only briefly and settle within 1 meter from the source; these are usually mediated by breathing zones of individuals.4 However, smaller particles can travel farther, with distance governed by airflow that is driven by many variables, including ventilation, human movement, and temperature gradients. While droplets tend to evaporate rapidly, dry residues can remain suspended in the air.5 Infectious respiratory aerosols can occur as droplets >5 mcm diameter, or droplet nuclei (<5 mcm diameter).6 Present evidence indicates that SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs primarily through droplet spread in settings with normal breathing. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises more stringent, airborne precautions for aerosol-generating procedures with COVID-19. Such procedures include intubation, extubation, noninvasive ventilation, high-flow nasal cannula, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation before intubation.7 Some evidence indicates that SARS-CoV-2 can linger in aerosol form for hours,8 and aerosol transmission is therefore plausible. Non-peer reviewed data in real-world settings indicates the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in air samples from hallways outside and in rooms adjacent to COVID-19-containing patients.9

These findings raised some concerns about use of PAP in medical and home environments, leading to the recommendation that the decision to continue or withhold PAP temporarily be made based on a risk-benefit evaluation. Scant data hint that PAP therapy may be safe to use in rooms that support appropriate ventilation (eg, negative pressure rooms). Regarding mask type, recently, a group reported the possibility that oronasal masks have a better aerosol dispersal profile.5 However, this conclusion was based on a single study of a specific model of oronasal mask, which demonstrated an absence of ability to measure a dispersion air jet, because the exhalation ports on the mask caused diffuse rather than directed dispersion of air.10 The same study found, that when the jet could be measured (with nasal pillows or with leak from any interface), greater dispersion was indeed evident. While anecdotal practical methods to filter exhaled air from PAP devices to reduce aerosol transmission have been proposed, data regarding successful reduction in transmission are still lacking, and such methods are not endorsed by mask manufacturers.

Ambulatory clinics: role of telemedicine

As the spread of COVID-19 disease accelerated, the AASM recommended that sleep medicine practices postpone and reschedule all nonemergency, in-person appointments, and conduct as many visits as possible by telemedicine.

This rapid transition posed many layers of logistical complexity, including how to quickly initiate or scale up an often fledging telemedicine presence; scheduling and instructing patients for telemedicine encounters; problem-solving in situations with limited device and Internet availability; triaging patients based on risk; and tracking postponed appointments. Administrators, medical assistants, nurses, advanced practitioners, respiratory therapists, technologists, and physicians have learned new ways of doing things, and laboratory personnel have undergone training and transitioned to new roles and responsibilities during postponement of lab studies. Training programs, in particular, have had to be nimble in finding ways to meet the educational needs of sleep medicine fellows that leveraged telemedicine opportunities.

Economic implications of transformed sleep medicine practices

While deploying such systematic change costs both time and money, sleep practices are also confronted with questions around lost revenue from drops in laboratory and clinic volumes. Many additional questions around reimbursement and revenue shortfalls are present, and short-term, furloughed employees may not be able to sustain income loss, which could result in difficulty in resuming services when the COVID-19 threat has been reduced.

Helpfully, during this public health emergency, CMS has expanded coverage for telemedicine services and waived requirements for face-to-face or in-person encounters,11 and some private payers have followed. Additionally, for the duration of the public health emergency, Medicare will cover PAP devices based on the clinician’s assessment of the patient without requiring PSG or a home sleep apnea test (HSAT). However, CMS has not clarified what follow-up testing, if any, may be required after this public health emergency is over. The duration of these new payment models remains uncertain.

Recommendations for PAP users

Patients and families, practitioners, and group living facilities have all expressed concerns about use of PAP during the epidemic given presumed increased risk of viral spread. In many hospital protocols, the use of PAP is restricted or disallowed for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. Guidance regarding out-of-hospital use of PAP has been sparse.

AASM has recommended avoidance of PAP or noninvasive ventilation (NIV) for those with presumed or confirmed COVID-19 who cannot self-isolate according to CDC guidance. Risk-benefit assessment is recommended for those who perform safety-sensitive activities or have higher-risk medical conditions. During the period that PAP is withheld, alternative or modifying therapies can be considered, such as positional therapy or oral appliance.

Cleaning device components and washing and replacing filters as recommended by the manufacturer, as well as simple but important interventions like handwashing before and after touching the face or airway gear is thought to be especially important during this time.


The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled unprecedented, rapid changes in the way sleep medicine practices deliver care to millions of patients. These changes have been propelled by practitioners and staff who have embraced adaptability, creativity, resourcefulness, and attention to safety and effectiveness. Widespread use of telemedicine services, greater reliance on ambulatory testing, ongoing risk-benefit stratification, leveraging technology and teamwork, and sharing knowledge as it becomes available has resulted in care that is more accessible and convenient for some vulnerable patients, and, yet, challenges persist in accessing needed care. Necessity has been the mother of invention, and we expect the field will need to continue to rebalance as the situation evolves. The ultimate test of these rapid innovations will be how sleep medicine patients fare in the long run, in terms of their health, safety, mortality, and overall quality of life. Future research must address these questions, and the resulting information may yet inform the way sleep medicine is practiced in the years to come.

Dr. Shannon is Medical Director, EVAL Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA; Dr. Gurubhagavatula is Associate Professor, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and with Crescenz VA Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA.

1. Worldometer. COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

2. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS releases recommendations on adult elective surgeries, non-essential medical, surgical, and dental procedures during COVID-19 response. 2020 Mar 18.

3. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Implementation of mitigation strategies for communities with local COVID-19 transmission.

4. Tang JW et al. Factors involved in the aerosol transmission of infection and control of ventilation in healthcare premises. J Hosp Infect. 2006;64(2):100-14.

5. Martina Ferioli et al. Protecting healthcare workers from SARS-CoV-2 infection: practical indications. European Respiratory Review 2020;29:200068. doi: 10.1183/16000617.0068-2020.

6. World Health Organization. 2014 Apr. Infection prevention and control of epidemic and pandemic-prone acute respiratory infections in health care.

7. World Health Organization. 2020 Feb 27. Rational use of personal protective equipment for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Interim guidance.

8. Van Doremalen N et al. Aerosol and surface stability of SARS-CoV-2 as compared with SARS-CoV-1. N Engl J Med. 2020 Apr 16;382(16):1564-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJMc2004973.

9. Joshua L Santarpia et al. Transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2 in viral shedding observed at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. MedRxiv. 2020 Mar 26. doi: 10.1101/2020.03.23.20039446.

10. David S. Hui et al. Exhaled air dispersion during high-flow nasal cannula therapy versus CPAP via different masks. Eur Respir J. 2019 Apr 11.53(4):pii: 1802339. doi: 10.1183/13993003.02339-2018.

11. Worldometer. COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

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