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COVID-19 Update: Design perspective from a biocontainment expert

Healthcare Design magazine asked LEO A DALY’s Robert Counter, AIA, how U.S. hospitals and other institutions are prepared for the pandemic

The following is excerpted from Healthcare Design

Risk Factor: Q+A with Robert Counter

To help shed light on how the unfolding COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak stands to influence our healthcare system—and the design of these environments—Healthcare Design spoke to expert Robert Counter, AIA, healthcare director and senior associate at LEO A DALY, for insight on what to expect and how facilities can best respond.

Healthcare Design: Share with our readers a little bit about your background and the firm’s involvement in designing for threats like coronavirus.

Robert Counter: LEO A DALY was one of the first firms to specialize in biocontainment patient care units, now referred to as special pathogen units (SPUs), by incorporating our experience designing BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs for the government into our healthcare practice. In 2014, the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit in Omaha, which we designed, was activated to treat an American Ebola patient, and has since been used to treat several patients with the virus.

For the past five years, I’ve been leading LEO A DALY’s Los Angeles studio in designing an Ebola/SPU as part of the CDC’s efforts to build regional referral centers throughout the country.

This has involved working closely with the client to study various locations on a major urban hospital campus and working with state and local regulatory agencies on the design requirements. To aid in the design, we visited existing SPUs around the country and met with clinicians to gather lessons learned and incorporate them into the design of this next-gen unit.

Now declared a public health emergency in the U.S., what does that mean for our hospitals and healthcare facilities?

The U.S. has a much different healthcare system than in China, with more stringent building codes that are effective in stemming the spread of airborne infectious disease. The CDC does an excellent job coordinating the nationwide response. Hospitals in the U.S. are well prepared for this. In fact, this year’s strain of influenza is a bigger concern than COVID-19.

However, non-healthcare facilities where there are large gatherings or airports are not prepared to deal with holding a potentially infected person, and they need to have trained staff who can evaluate and safely hold a person until they can be transferred to a healthcare facility for evaluation

How can healthcare facilities be prepared for patients to present with COVID-19? Are we prepared for a widespread outbreak in the U.S.?

Existing building codes mandate protections that guard against an outbreak like this in a hospital setting. When a patient presents in a U.S. emergency department, they walk into a negative-air-pressure waiting space with air exhausted to the outside. As soon as they enter, they are triaged. And if they present with a disease like COVID-19 or the flu, they are immediately identified as infectious and taken to an isolation room. From there, they are tested. And if further isolation is needed, hospitals have that capability.

So far, facilities in the U.S. are treating COVID-19 patients just like flu patients. It’s important that caregivers follow personal protective equipment (PPE) protocol. With COVID-19, the PPE will be similar to that used for the flu or tuberculosis.

How serious do you think the situation is, as it’s progressed in the U.S. in recent days?

According to the California Department of Public Health, while imported cases of COVID-19 have been detected in the U.S., there is no evidence of sustained person-to-person transmissions of the virus. On Jan. 31, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency in the U.S. to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to the virus. While the CDC maintains that the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, the immediate health risk for the general public in the U.S. is considered low at this time.

In fact, 80 percent of those contracting Covid-19 don’t require special treatment. The issues have been mostly with those who are already compromised. Not sure what this means long-term, but certainly our bodies are capable of defeating it on our own, in the right circumstances. Our overall societal lack of proper hygiene—hand washing, covering your cough, and avoiding nose picking and eye-rubbing—appear to be the biggest reasons for continued spread.

In meeting with the CDC, there is a concern that U.S. facilities don’t have enough N95 respirators to accommodate staff and/or patients. Academic medical centers are being approved to develop and use their own testing procedures, which will provide better access to testing. Federal officials say nearly 1 million could be tested this week.

How did the hospital in Wuhan get built so fast? Would that ever happen here in the U.S.?

The U.S. probably doesn’t have the capacity to build an instant facility like the one in Wuhan, but it’s largely a moot point because we wouldn’t want to.

The facility built in Wuhan would not meet the definition of a hospital in the U.S. It doesn’t comply with the codes and regulations we have in place to keep patients and caregivers safe. It’s a series of modular buildings connected to isolate potentially infectious patients from the general population, but they aren’t isolated from each other. They’re kept in large mass quarantines, very similar in many ways to a “Nightingale hospital ward” except that the cross ventilation in a Nightingale hospital (replaced in modern hospitals with specific air changes by the HVAC system) is not apparent in what I’ve seen in the Wuhan facility.

U.S. federal agencies have emergency response teams equipped to build instant tent cities that would do a better job of isolating and treating patients. These types of temporary modular units were and are being used in Africa to fight Ebola. They have isolation rooms, anterooms, special showers, and storage space for PPE, and are capable of treating hundreds of patients.

L.A. County, for example, has a complete response system in place—mobile vans that can be quickly rolled out and set up in response to a community health crisis like this.

We keep hearing experts say to be more worried about the flu. What are best practices to keep in mind in terms of designing environments that can combat the spread of viruses, be it the flu or coronavirus? 

Hospitals need to evaluate the design and size of their isolation units in preparation for large outbreaks whether it is Ebola, MERS, another novel coronavirus, or the flu. During flu season, a hospital’s occupancy rate can peak over 100 percent. This is without considering an additional virus like Covid-19 infecting people in the U.S. during flu season. There are not enough respiratory isolation rooms to accommodate a large influx of infectious patients, but each hospital does have an emergency response plan in case of a large number of new patients.

In the future, hospitals may want to reevaluate their isolation ICU unit designs to allow for acuity-adaptive rooms capable of handling higher acuity patients when the need arrives. Acuity-adaptive rooms have all the infrastructure necessary to switch from a standard med/surg room to an isolation ICU room, but spend most of their lives as lower-acuity rooms. The materials in acuity-adaptive rooms are upgraded for cleanability; they may have additional treatment lights; the ceiling design is different; there are medical gases and storage space for specialized equipment and access to PPE.

Hospitals may also want to consider changing the overall layout of future ICU units to fall more in line with the design of an SPU. This would mean changing how materials and staff enter and exit the unit to create a unidirectional flow. They would want to create more visualization of patients and put additional technology in the rooms. Anterooms would have to be placed at the entrance of units to create an air block, and you would need sterilization capabilities at the exit to sterilize soiled materials. Finishes would be different, too, capable of handling harsher cleaning agents.

Read the whole interview:

Healthcare Design