Expert Commentary

Learning to live with COVID-19: Postpandemic life will be reflected in how effectively we leverage this crisis

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Four strategies can help us navigate through the COVID-19 health emergency, and lessons learned can guide thinking on future health care delivery and educational initiatives


 

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While often compared with the Spanish influenza contagion of 1918, the current COVID-19 pandemic is arguably unprecedented in scale and scope, global reach, and the rate at which it has spread across the world.

Unprecedented times

The United States now has the greatest burden of COVID-19 disease worldwide.1 Although Boston has thus far been spared the full force of the disease’s impact, it is likely only a matter of time before it reaches here. To prepare for the imminent surge, we at Tufts Medical Center defined 4 short-term strategic imperatives to help guide our COVID-19 preparedness. Having a single unified strategy across our organization has helped to maintain focus and consistency in the messaging amidst all of the uncertainty. Our focus areas are outlined below.

1 Flatten the curve

This term refers to the use of “social distancing” and community isolation measures to keep the number of disease cases at a manageable level. COVID-19 is spread almost exclusively through contact with contaminated respiratory droplets. While several categories of risk have been described, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines disease “exposure” as face-to-face contact within 6 feet of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes without wearing a mask.2 Intervening at all 3 of these touchpoints effectively reduces transmission. Interventions include limiting in-person meetings, increasing the space between individuals (both providers and patients), and routinely using personal protective equipment (PPE).

Another effective strategy is to divide frontline providers into smaller units or teams to limit cross-contamination: the inpatient team versus the outpatient team, the day team versus the night team, the “on” team versus the “off” team. If the infection lays one team low, other providers can step in until they recover and return to work.

Visitor policies should be developed and strictly implemented. Many institutions do allow one support person in labor and delivery (L&D) regardless of the patient’s COVID-19 status, although that person should not be symptomatic or COVID-19 positive. Whether to test all patients and support persons for COVID-19 on arrival at L&D remains controversial.3 At a minimum, these individuals should be screened for symptoms. Although it was a major focus of initial preventative efforts, taking a travel and exposure history is no longer informative as the virus is now endemic and community spread is common.

Initial preventative efforts focused also on high-risk patients, but routine use of PPE for all encounters clearly is more effective because of the high rate of asymptomatic shedding. The virus can survive suspended in the air for up to 2 hours following an aerosol-generating procedure (AGP) and on surfaces for several hours or even days. Practices such as regular handwashing, cleaning of exposed work surfaces, and avoiding face touching should by now be part of our everyday routine.

Institutions throughout the United States have established inpatient COVID-19 units—so-called “dirty” units—with mixed success. As the pandemic spreads and the number of patients with asymptomatic shedding increases, it is harder to determine who is and who is not infected. Cross-contamination has rendered this approach largely ineffective. Whether this will change with the introduction of rapid point-of-care testing remains to be seen.

Continue to: 2 Preserve PPE...

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