When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to impact countries around the world earlier this year, non-essential healthcare procedures and elective surgeries were postponed partly to ensure that sufficient supplies were kept available for hospitals to treat coronavirus patients. Surgery and other medical care is deemed “elective” if the procedure can be delayed, without causing significant harm to the patient.

Now that the first surge of the pandemic has stabilized in many areas of the United States, facilities in states that have passed the federal government’s criteria for Phase One may return to providing non-emergency healthcare. This care should be offered in compliance with state health authorities and public health information, including OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. According to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt, “This guidance outlines practical ways that employers and workers can address potential health risks from the coronavirus in their workplaces.”

Healthcare WorkersHealthcare facilities must do their part in preventing future surges of the coronavirus. Readiness to reopen varies by location, but you can use the following recommendations to ensure that your facility will be able to provide care again.

The First Priority: Patients

When you resume health care services, the absolute first priority is the health and safety of your patients. It is highly recommended for healthcare facilities to screen all personnel before they enter the facility—including patients, staff, and third party vendors such as delivery workers—to prevent further spread. Screening typically involves asking visitors and employees questions such as:

  • Are you experiencing any common symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, coughing, shortness of breath, chills, or recent loss of taste/smell?
  • Have you been taking care of someone who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19?
  • Have you recently come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19?

On top of screening, personal protective equipment such as gloves, medical grade masks, and face shields should be provided to all employees, especially those who must come into close contact with their patients. It’s recommended to encourage employees who feel sick to remain at homes.

Sanitation Protocols

Healthcare facilities are one of the most important places to implement sanitation. Before you open your doors again for elective procedures, you should develop a plan for thorough and consistent disinfection throughout your clinic. In many facilities, this includes wiping down counters, the arms of chairs in the waiting room, door handles, medical equipment, and other high-touch surfaces either on a schedule (i.e. once an hour) or immediately after each patient.

Many facilities have removed magazines in their waiting rooms and restricted access to drinking fountains. Some of them ask their patients to fill out paperwork and provide information online; if paperwork must be filled out at the clinic, pens and clipboards are sanitized after each use. 

Social Distancing in Waiting Rooms and Clinics

The act of social distancing and keeping six feet of space between you and another person is still one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It’s important to asses your workplace and identify the areas where people tend to congregate; in most healthcare facilities, this is the waiting room.Social Distancing Precautions Wall Sign

There are some effective ways that social distancing can be practiced in waiting rooms, including:

  • Staggering appointments so there are not a lot of people arriving at the same time
  • Restricting visitors; only patients are allowed inside the building
  • Asking people to wait in their cars until the time of their appointment
  • Removing chairs from the waiting room and spacing the remaining chairs out so people may sit at a safe distance from each other if they do wait inside
  • Installing floor tape and other social distancing tools in areas where people tend to congregate as they check in, check out, or accept paperwork 

Preparing Your Healthcare Facility for the Future

If your facility has been given the green light to offer elective procedures again, that’s good news—it means that COVID-19 cases in your area have stabilized, local hospitals have enough capacity, and your employees can come back. However, your clinic will have to adapt its operations to safely resume during the pandemic. This requires careful planning and using signs, labels, and other types of communication so patients understand the changes they will encounter at your clinic.

It’s also highly important to stay updated with local health authorities and to be prepared to temporarily suspend non-essential procedures once again if there is another surge in coronavirus cases. By staying flexible and adhering to recommendations, you can safely offer non-emergency care while protecting your workers, your patients, and your community.

Additional resources:

https://www.dol.gov/newsroom/releases/osha/osha20200309

https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf

https://www.cms.gov/files/document/covid-flexibility-reopen-essential-non-covid-services.pdf

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