Since its first description in China,1,2 the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has spread in almost every country in the world. The first cases of Corona Virus Disease 19 (COVID-19) were identified in Italy in the third week of February, followed by a massive increase, reaching over 15,000 new cases and over 1000 deaths within 2 weeks.
The unexpected outbreak had several consequences on the Italian National Health System. The massive access of COVID-19 cases to the emergency departments resulted in a saturation of the intensive care units and of the available inpatients’ wards. As a consequence, many hospitals, especially in Northern Italy, had to completely restructure their services to accommodate the increased request.3
National and regional emergency plans have been implemented according to the World Health Organization guidelines and to the local needs, to provide dedicated services for suspected COVID-19 cases and guarantee appropriate health care for all the other patients. Most of the planning has been focused on intensive care units, with special attention to the care of elderly, and more generally of high-risk patients, such as those with disabilities, congenital or acquired immune disorders, oncologic disorders and transplant recipients.
Less attention has been paid to the pediatric population. This is not surprising as although children are not spared by the SARS-CoV-2, they only account for approximately 1% of the identified cases of COVID-19, and very few deaths under the age of 10 years have been reported. These numbers are probably not reflecting the real pediatric prevalence of infection as children have often been reported to have milder and nonspecific clinical signs, sometimes even in the absence of fever.4–8
While there is less concern about the severity of the infection in childhood, it must not be underestimated that children may still contribute to the spreading of the infection. A proper reorganization is therefore necessary in the pediatric services, to identify children who may have milder and nonspecific signs of infection and, at the same time, protecting the other pediatric patients at the hospital for other reasons.
We report our experience in the reorganization of the Pediatric Department in our University Hospital in Rome. As the COVID-19 outbreak in central Italy occurred approximately 2 weeks later than in Northern Italy, we had the possibility to plan in advance some preventive measures. The Fondazione Policlinico Universitario A. Gemelli IRCCS has been selected as one of the “COVID-19 hospitals” in our region. As the hospital covers the care of both adults and children, it has been important to develop a plan also for children, taking advantage of the experience rapidly collected in adult patients.
Traditionally, our Pediatric Department is divided in different, but interconnected, main macro-areas of activity (Fig. 1), distributed on different floors. Each group of residents is assigned to a specific area, but there is a significant interaction among the different groups because of the multidisciplinary approach needed in many of the children followed in the individual services.
A complete restyling of the standard organization of our Pediatric Units was planned within a few days from the outbreak in Italy, to prevent the risk of infection for both children and staff, as several cases of healthcare workers infected with SARS-CoV-2 had been reported in Northern Italy. A pediatric task force, including all the pediatric consultants, developed an emergency plan of action aimed to:
- provide separate flows for high-risk and low-risk COVID-19 pediatric patients. All patients with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 were isolated until the results of the diagnostic tests were available to reduce their potential risk of infection; and
- increase the number of beds and negative pressure rooms in dedicated areas to possibly accommodate a potentially much higher number of children with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
This was realized within a week in different steps involving both the reorganization of space and of clinical duties (Fig. 2).
PEDIATRIC EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT AND PEDIATRIC INTENSIVE CARE UNIT
- A pretriage tent was made available in front of the Pediatric Emergency Department to identify patients at risk for COVID-19 and avoid interaction with other patients in the waiting room before triage.
- Only one parent/caregiver was allowed with each child, irrespective of the COVID-19 risk.
- In the pediatric emergency department, the number of rooms dedicated to children with clinical signs suggestive of COVID-19 was increased. Children attending the pediatric emergency department for other reasons were kept in other areas dedicated to patients with lower risk.
- Additional rooms for children with severe clinical signs suggestive of COVID-19 were also identified in the pediatric intensive care unit.
- All children with clinical signs suggestive of COVID-19 were moved to a dedicated pediatric COVID-19 ward.
- Consultants, nurses and residents were divided into 2 groups: COVID team and no-COVID team, to avoid that in subsequent shifts they could attend different services with different risk level.
- All outpatients’ services were reorganized, cancelling all visits that were thought to be nonurgent and that could be postponed to the end of the outbreak; “smart-visits” with video-calls were organized when appropriate. The pediatric group includes a number of services and programs such as rare disorders, spina bifida, neurology, neonatal follow-up of high-risk infants, oncology and others, with over nearly 1000 children/week usually seen in our clinics. As many patients are from other regions, each group selected some specific criteria to define the level of urgency in relation to the risks related to COVID-19. This was discussed for individual patients taking also into account the burden of the families to attend the appointment, the availability of local services and contacting the family to investigate their willingness to travel.
- Access was guaranteed to all fragile children requiring regular controls because of subclinical instability, acute/subacute conditions, chronic treatments that needed to be stabilized and risk of immediate complications. The criteria, defined in agreement with specialists from other centers, are in the process of being published on the website of the Italian Society of Pediatric Genetic Disorders and shared with other national pediatric societies.9
- Similarly, special attention was devoted to guarantee access to newborn and infants younger than 2 years old, to cover all the aspects of care that could not be managed by the pediatric general practitioners.
- These patients were seen in “non-COVID areas” and by staff not involved in the COVID ward.
E-learning programs and web meeting support were implemented for medical doctors and nurses.
The new setting allowed us to manage all pediatric medical and surgical emergences and severe cases requiring hospitalization reducing the burden and the stress for the families and the staff. Time of discharge was optimized by the continuous presence of a multidisciplinary team and possibility to follow some aspects after hospitalization using web connection with the family.
Following the opening of the emergency COVID area, greater than 90 pediatric patients fulfilling the World Health Organization criteria have been seen and tested and 3% were found to be positive. No death was registered, in line with national data. Only 0.5% of pediatric staff developed SARS-CoV-2 infection, with no obvious evidence of exposure during care of pediatric patients.
The other outpatients and inpatients activities not related to COVID had a marked reduction, but we were able to guarantee over 20% of the scheduled appointments for patients who could not postpone treatments or urgent assessments, while at the same time respecting national and local safety instructions. At the time there is a local and national trend showing a reduction in new cases, the task force is contemplating how to proceed with the phase 2 of the plan, to gradually implement some of the activities reduced in the last 2 months.
At the time the task force developed the measures described in this article, little was known about the frequency and severity of COVID infection in children in Europe. The relatively low number of positive cases among patients and staff suggests that the safety measures and the reorganization of staff and space may have helped to contain the diffusion of the infection. While we appreciate that children are not the top priority at the time of managing this pandemic, we strongly believe that an appropriate planning and intervention should also be applied to the pediatric wards. At the same time, the need to face an unpredictable emergency situation should not affect the quality of the assistance to the non-COVID patients.
We thank pedCOVID-team members Ilaria Lazzareschi, Carmen Cocca, Valentina Giorgio, Chiara Leoni, Donato Rigante, Gabriella De Rosa, Angelica Bibiana Delogu, Stefano Miceli Sopo, Palma Maurizi, Antonio Rggiero, Stefano Mastrangelo, Silvia Triarico, Marika Pane, Alberto Romano, Claudia Rendeli, Ilaria Contaldo, Chiara Veredice and Gandolfo Cinzia.
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