Clinical decision-making during the present pandemic has challenged healthcare providers to the limits of their endurance. Inpatient facilities are discharging patients who are positive for the COVID-19 infection, based on testing, and who may still be positive but have symptoms that have remitted. Even medically stable patients may not be able to exercise basic transmission-based precautions such as handwashing or wearing a face mask, and may increase the risk of infection spread to others upon discharge. This can present challenging decisions about when, how, and where to discharge COVID inpatients. This article addresses the behavioral health aspects of this problem, offering background information and proposing creation of a Transmission Based Precautions Inventory. This clinical tool will use chart information and a clinical interview to assess the capability of patients upon discharge to exercise the appropriate behavior-based precautions to prevent the spread of any contagious infection. The discussion includes an exemplar that illustrates the dilemma, followed by other metrics for scoring and development of the tool. Administration time of the tool would be approximately 15-20 minutes and responses would score immediately to inform discharge decisions. The need for such a tool is current; however, the usefulness of an efficacious inventory would persist beyond the present pandemic. In the conclusion, the author invites reader feedback to inform the development and implementation process.
Key Words: COVID-19 patients, coronavirus transmission, behavior, decision-making, discharge, cognitive, inventory, neuropsychiatric, patient capability, Transmission Based Precautions Inventory, behavioral health
While the probability of being contagious decreases with time since initial diagnosis, a percentage of discharged hospitalized patients are still potential spreaders of this disease.Inpatient facilities are discharging patients who are positive for the COVID-19 infection, based on testing, and who may still be positive but have symptoms that have remitted. While the probability of being contagious decreases with time since initial diagnosis, (CDC guidance, 2020) a percentage of discharged hospitalized patients are still potential spreaders of this disease. Additionally, there are patients admitted to hospital emergency departments (ED), diagnosed with COVID, but considered medically stable enough to be discharged to home. In some cases, “home” is an assisted living facility or elderly group housing.
Populations at Risk
If an individual who remains contagious, but cannot consistently and fully engage in Transmission Based Precautions (TBP) such as wearing a mask or appropriate handwashing, re-enters the community without supervision, the result can be extremely deleterious to the health of large numbers of people. Per the CDC (August 10, 2020) guidance on TBP upon discharge, “Patients can be discharged from the healthcare facility whenever clinically indicated. The decision to send the patient home should be made in consultation with the patient’s clinical care team and local or state public health departments. It should include considerations of the home’s suitability for and patient’s ability to adhere to home isolation recommendations (Disposition of Patients with SARS-CoV-2 Infection).”
Of concern, there are subgroups of patients who may lack the ability to comply with TBP, putting others in a facility at risk.In addition, the same document states that, if the patient is discharged to a nursing home or another long-term facility (e.g., assisted living facility), and TBP are still required; the patient should go to a facility with “…an ability to adhere to infection prevention and control recommendations for the care of residents with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Preferably, the patient would be placed in a location designated to care for residents with SARS-CoV-2 infection (Disposition of Patients with SARS-CoV-2 Infection, August 10, 2020).” Of concern, there are subgroups of patients who may lack the ability to comply with TBP, putting others in a facility at risk. Table 1 offers examples for consideration.
Table 1. Subgroups of Patients Who May Not Be Able to Fully Exercise TBP
The last subgroup listed has been cited by a growing contemporaneous literature base arising from multiple disciplines, with observations that COVID-19 is involved in emerging neurological symptoms, neuropsychiatric conditions, and neurocognitive sequelae. The next section offers an overview of some of this recent evidence.
Evidence for Concern
A recent study (Kennedy et al., 2020) retrospectively reviewed ED medical records of elderly patients diagnosed with COVID-19. This multicenter cohort study used a standardized procedure for assessing delirium and found that 28% of 817 elderly patients met criteria for delirium upon presentation to the ED. In addition, the study found that for 16% of those patients, delirium was the main presenting symptom associated with the infection.
As early as March 2020, clinicians were reporting neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19.As early as March 2020, clinicians were reporting neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19 (Troyer et al., 2020). Neurological sequelae were reported in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article based on data from early hospitalizations in Wuhan, China (Mao et. al., 2020).
Also in March 2020, an article in Neurology Today (Talan, 2020) highlighted the need for a neurocovid-19 unit in Italy during that peak time. The symptom presentation of patients designated for such a unit involved epileptic seizures, delirium, status post stroke, and non-specific neurologic syndromes that were similar to encephalitis.
Simultaneously, reports were cited by scientists in China that patients with more severe disease were likely to have neurological symptoms, including acute cerebral vascular disease (CVD). A clinical manuscript originating in London, England (Patterson et al., 2020) determined that five major categories of neurological symptoms existed. These included encephalopathies with delirium/psychosis; inflammatory CNS syndromes; ischemic strokes; peripheral neurological disorders; and miscellaneous central disorders.
The evidence for psychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19 infection has been consistently reported throughout the past eight months of the pandemic.The evidence for psychiatric symptoms associated with COVID-19 infection has been consistently reported throughout the past eight months of the pandemic. In a recent article involving a retrospective cohort study of COVID-19 cases in the United States (Taquet et. al., 2020), researchers found documented evidence of first occurrence of psychiatric diagnosis at a significant level in the following 14 to 90 days when compared to six other health events, including influenza. The hazard ratio was greatest for anxiety disorders, insomnia, and dementia. Additionally, it was found that a prior psychiatric history may be a risk factor for being diagnosed with COVID-19, independent of known physical risk factors.
...there is clear evidence to support concern about a population who may have difficulty adhering to TBP upon discharge...Purpose of the Inventory
In sum, there is clear evidence to support concern about a population who may have difficulty adhering to TBP upon discharge, and the subsequent risk to others as a result. Thus, for some individuals, there may be a transitional period in which their ability to exercise TBP will remain compromised. The proposed inventory described in this article can be useful at different time intervals to assess whether an individual has progressed to the point where he or she is able to effectively engage in TBP. Instituting proper care arrangements until a patient with this concern has improved would be essential to protect the public health.
...such a tool would remain essential as other occurrences of infectious diseases will continue to warrant TBP.The purpose of the proposed inventory is to reliably and validly assess the capacity of an individual to utilize Transmission Based Precautions to mitigate the spread of infection. This is of critical importance with the present pandemic. However, such a tool would remain essential as other occurrences of infectious diseases will continue to warrant TBP. The proposed assessment measure would be used in real-time (i.e., for consideration of discharge and the safety measures required of a patient) as a tool to guide healthcare professionals in the decision-making process.
A Proposed Transmission Based Precautions Inventory
The basis of the TBI Inventory has precedence in earlier works...Theoretical Basis
The assessment measure is based upon theoretical concepts supporting instruments with efficacious predictive validity and solid construct validity. The instrument would meet the highest psychometric standard and will contribute to best practice for clinical utility. The basis of the TBI Inventory has precedence in earlier works, such as the book, “Assessing Competencies” (Grisso, 2003) and a 2011 article (Dastidar & Odden) that addressed how to determine if a patient has decision-making capacity. The “Checklist for Discharging Patients with COVID-19” (American Hospital Association, 2020) did recognize the need to assess for ability to engage in TBP, but was limited in the methods described to conduct such an assessment.
The inventory would assist healthcare providers as they make decisions about the capacity for a patient who is still infectious...to carry out appropriate TBP once discharged.The proposed TBI Inventory can be of substantial importance for medical facilities and healthcare providers (Grabowski & Maddox, 2020). The inventory would assist healthcare providers as they make decisions about the capacity for a patient who is still infectious, or potentially infectious, to carry out appropriate TBP once discharged. The TBI Inventory is individually focused and would be completed by the attending healthcare provider based on information available in the patient chart and a clinical interview with the patient. Responses would ideally be recorded on a digital tablet with scoring and outcome immediately available to the clinician. Total administration time is estimated as 15 to 20 minutes. Presently, no such instrument exists; the need for such an inventory will have benefit beyond the current pandemic.
Table 2 lists the basic domains that would comprise the structure of this assessment. Each domain was derived based upon clinical experience, expert input, and existing measures that attempt to predict a behavior of interest for a specific target population.
Table 2. Proposed Structure of the Inventory
Each domain was derived based upon clinical experience, expert input, and existing measures that attempt to predict a behavior of interest for a specific target population.Domain items would be empirically generated by the author and a panel of experts. Input from clinicians and clinical academic professionals will also contribute to the items created. Inclusion of items for each domain will ultimately be decided by the ability of the item to accurately reflect the individual domain concept.
Rigorous statistical analysis will be utilized to select items that have domain specific correlation. Factor analysis with strong inter-item correlational thresholds will be utilized as one of the methods for test construction. Excellent reliability as well as factorial and convergent/discriminant validity are the psychometric goals for the measure. The importance of internal consistency of items comprising domains of the measure and interrater reliability will be addressed throughout test development. The measurement must demonstrate high levels of sensitivity for the condition of interest as well as specificity. Table 3 proposes six sample items and related ratings for clinicians.
Table 3. Sample Items
Choices (rated by the clinician)
1) Based upon the patent’s most recent mental status evaluation and clinical observation; Does the patient have the ability to retain new information (e.g., instructions) and use it?
2) Is the patient prone to transient states of disorientation or delirium?
3) Does the patient demonstrate functional fine motor skills (e.g., Ability to put on a facemask)?
4) Is the patient's mood and affective state stable and void of major disruptions?
5) Does the patient have sensory deficits that would affect their ability to engage in TBP (e.g., visual-spatial deficits, uncorrected hearing impairment)?
6) Does the patient demonstrate adequate self-care awareness and behavior (e.g., cover mouth when coughing)?
The following exemplar is a case that illustrates the potential difficulty of discharging a patient with confidence that he or she can safely follow accepted protocols to reduce potential disease transmission. Identifiable details have been altered to assure confidentiality.
Case Background Information
Paul is an 82-year-old retired male who was living independently in an apartment in the Northeast area of the United States. In May, he underwent spinal surgery for a herniated disc and was successfully discharged back to his apartment with home care services and family support.
Approximately five days later, Paul began experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, a low-grade fever, and occasional shortness of breath. His son made the decision to have him evaluated at the hospital where he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the emergency department.
Given Paul's age, and the acute onset of his symptoms, he was admitted to one of the newly established COVID units on the medical floor. Prior to the acute admission, Paul was functioning with family support and a hired personal care aide. His cognitive status was mildly attenuated, formally diagnosed as MCI.
During his hospital course, Paul developed hypoxia and required administration of oxygen but he was never in need of ventilator support. Not unusual for an elderly patient placed on an acute care medical floor, Paul displayed episodes of transient disorientation and agitated behavior. He was intermittently sedated with anxiolytics and eventually placed on a low dose of Seroquel. In addition, he developed a small blood clot in his right leg and was treated clinically without surgical intervention.
Paul was evaluated by Neurology with a diagnostic MRI negative for stroke, but with evidence of CVD, mostly in the periventricular region; mild diffuse cortical inflammation; and mild diffuse parenchymal atrophy. The MRI Impression indicated: Mild white matter ischemic disease, mild cerebral atrophy consistent with age related changes, possible encephalopathy of undetermined etiology (possibly secondary to viral infection).
After six days of no fever, and no longer needing supplemental oxygen, Paul and his family were informed he was to be discharged in the next 24 hours. His son was very concerned about Paul’s infectious status and requested a nasal swab PCR retest. While initially meeting some resistance regarding the need for repeated PCR testing, the attending physician and medical director ultimately agreed to retest, and the result was positive for the virus.
Follow up by Neurology prior to discharge found that his cortical inflammation had largely resolved. Administration of the Mini Mental State Examination ([MMSE], n.d) resulted in a score of 21, consistent with mild cognitive impairment. Recall of three objects learned earlier resulted in one item remembered. Initial learning of the three objects took several repeated trials. The episodic agitation had decreased. There were still brief episodes of disorientation, but they typically resolved quickly.
A conversation about this case with Dr. Jacqueline Miller from the CDC (personal communication, April 25, 2020) clarified the dilemma that Paul was medically stable but still posed a possible risk to transmit his illness to others. It would be necessary to determine what would constitute a “Safe Discharge” that aligned with CDC recommendations and decide if this was even a feasible goal.
This tool could assist providers and family to choose the best setting for him upon discharge and to determine essential needs for him and his family.A clinical tool such as the one proposed in this writing would be a definite asset to the clinical team planning Paul’s discharge. This tool could assist providers and family to choose the best setting for him upon discharge and to determine essential needs for him and his family. In this case example, Paul’s understanding of his medical status and the interaction of his behavior in the discharge setting would be assessed. Additional information regarding his cognitive functioning would assist in formulating expectations about what and how much the patient could learn and retain, particularly relating to TBP. Answers to items included on the tool, based on review of his chart material and a clinical interview, would help providers to identify subtle persistent sensory deficits. An example of this is the peripheral neuropathy in his hands, which may impair Paul’s ability to adequately use PPE such as a face mask.
Ultimately, the proposed TBP Inventory will produce a total risk score. It will also include a breakdown of the domains comprising that score, with clinically elevated domains flagged. The next section discusses the intended scoring of the tool.
The scoring of the TBP Inventory will utilize t-scores for each domain value. Ultimately a total cut-off t-score will be obtained. The total cut-off score will result in a Score Range of the patient’s ability to exercise TBP with specific score ranges underlying the Score Range. Example of Score Ranges based on Total t-score ranges (lower scores indicate greater risk) Extreme Risk; t = <29: Serious Risk; t = 30-34: Moderate Risk; t = 30-35: Low Risk; t = 36-42: Adequate Level; t = > 43.
The proposed normative standard and procedures will employ the following for inventory development:
- A large representative sample of the target population. This should be readily available due to the current large numbers of COVID-19 infected individuals.
- If the sample distribution is markedly non-normal (i.e., skewed), item modification and/or additional items will be utilized with the goal of correcting the distribution in the normative direction.
- Non-normality distributions may be transformed to a normalized distribution with the reasons for such transformation clearly stated. Direct percentile conversions based on the original uncorrected sample distribution will be provided for use if the user prefers that option. (Strauss et. al., 2006)
- Normative scores will be provided once adequate sampling and inventory refinement are completed.
The target population will consist of adult patients who are pending discharge and are expected to exercise TBP as part of the discharge process. The age range would be 18-100.
Test Development Research and Future Research
The need for this measure is urgent, given the risk to others from discharged patients who are unable to maintain TBP.The need for this measure is urgent, given the risk to others from discharged patients who are unable to maintain TBP. Given that, one goal is to have a research version of the inventory available in the near future. The research edition would be utilized for the initial purpose of establishing appropriate psychometric properties of validity and sustained reliability and establishing the clinical utility of the measure. Input from users of the research version would assist the developer to refine the structure and content of the measure.
Future research will include expanded populations of interest, such as psychiatric inpatients (Cheung et al., 2020), and assessing the efficacy of the measure in the context of a repeated measure. Multiple rater forms could be an additional consideration with interdisciplinary healthcare professionals providing their clinical ratings.Identification and management of the behavioral health aspects of maintaining TBP upon discharge can be addressed by creation of the proposed clinical tool...
A significant cohort of confirmed COVID-19 positive patients are being discharged while partially or completely lacking the capability of minimizing behaviors that could result in the spread of infection. The need for a standardized clinical tool readily available to healthcare professionals for assessing this capability is clear. Identification and management of the behavioral health aspects of maintaining TBP upon discharge can be addressed by creation of the proposed clinical tool, The Transmission Based Precautions Inventory (TBPI). This clinical tool, once developed and refined, will continue to be efficacious for use in future epidemiological challenges.
Specific conceptual domains and sample items have been proposed. The author encourages and invites reader input addressed to the email below for potential assessment items from clinicians and clinical academic professionals.
Joel Becker, PhD, HSPP
Dr. Joel Becker is a Certified Health Service Provider in Psychology, Clinical Neuropsychologist, and Certified Disability Analyst who is at the forefront of Behavioral Medicine treatment for stress, anxiety, coping with illness, and cognitive challenges due to neurological and health issues. He is the author of numerous published articles and has been quoted in the national media. Dr. Becker taught Physiological Psychology at the University of Rhode Island and has had a recent publication used for training by the Occupational Health program at the University of Connecticut. He has lectured and taught a wide range of professionals (medical staff, school psychologists, among others) on topics of Neurocognitive Health, Behavioral Health, and the promotion of Wellness Programs in work/organizational health care and educational environments.
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