Get Triage Plans in Place Before COVID-19 Surge Hits, Experts Say

Andrew D. Bowser

April 22, 2020

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While triage of critical care resources should be a rare event during the COVID-19 crisis, failing to prepare for the worst-case scenario could have serious consequences, according to authors of recent reports that offer advice on how to prepare for surges in demand.

Even modest numbers of critically ill COVID-19 patients have already rapidly overwhelmed existing hospital capacity in hard-hit areas including Italy, Spain, and New York City, said authors of an expert panel report released in CHEST.

"The ethical burden this places on hospitals, health systems, and society is enormous," said Ryan C. Maves, MD, FCCP, of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, lead author of the expert panel report from the Task Force for Mass Critical Care and the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST).

"Our hope is that a triage system can help us identify those patients with the greatest likelihood of benefiting from scarce critical care resources, including but not limited to mechanical ventilation, while still remembering our obligations to care for all patients as best we can under difficult circumstances," Dr. Maves said in an interview.

Triage decisions could be especially daunting for resource-intensive therapies such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), as physicians may be forced to decide when and if to offer such support after demand outstrips a hospital's ability to provide it.

"ECMO requires a lot of specialized capability to initiate on a patient, and then, it requires a lot of specialized capability to maintain and do safely," said Steven P. Keller, MD, of the division of emergency critical care medicine in the department of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Those resource requirements can present a challenge to health care systems already overtaxed by COVID-19, according to Dr. Keller, coauthor of a guidance document in Annals of the American Thoracic Society. The guidance suggests a pandemic approach to ECMO response that's tiered depending on the intensity of the surge over usual hospital volumes.

Mild surges call for a focus on increasing ECMO capacity, while a moderate surge may indicate a need to focus on allocating scarce resources, and a major surge may signal the need to limit or defer use of scarce resources, according to the guidance.

"If your health care system is stretched from a resource standpoint, at what point do you say, 'we don't even have the capability to even safely do ECMO, and so, perhaps we should not even be offering the support?' " Dr. Keller said in an interview. "That's what we tried to get at in the paper — helping institutions think about how to prepare for that pandemic, and then when to make decisions on when it should and should not be offered."

Critical Care Guidance for COVID-19

The guidance from the Task Force for Mass Critical Care and CHEST offers nine specific actions that authors suggest as part of a framework for communities to establish the infrastructure needed to triage critical care resources and "equitably" meet the needs of the largest number of COVID-19 patients.

"It is the goal of the task force to minimize the need for allocation of scarce resources as much as possible," the authors stated.

The framework starts with surge planning that includes an inventory of intensive care unit resources such as ventilators, beds, supplies, and staff that could be marshaled to meet a surge in demand, followed by establishing "identification triggers" for triage initiation by a regional authority, should clinical demand reach a crisis stage.

The next step is preparing the triage system, which includes creating a committee at the regional level, identifying members of tertiary triage teams and the support structures they will need, and preparing and distributing training materials.

Agreeing on a triage protocol is important to ensure equitable targeting of resources, and how to allocate limited life-sustaining measures needs to be considered, according to the panel of experts. They also recommend adaptations to the standards of care such as modification of end-of-life care policies, support for health care workers, family, and the public, and consideration of pediatric issues including transport, concentration of care at specific centers, and potential increases in age thresholds to accommodate surges.

Barriers to Triage?

When asked about potential barriers to rolling out a triage plan, Dr. Maves said the first is acknowledging the possible need for such a plan: "It is a difficult concept for most in critical care to accept — the idea that we may not be able to provide an individual patient with interventions that we consider routine," he said.

Beyond acknowledging need, other potential barriers to successful implementation include the limited evidence base to support development of these protocols, as well as the need to address public trust.

"If a triage system is perceived as unjust or biased, or if people think that triage favors or excludes certain groups unfairly, it will undermine any system," Dr. Maves said. "Making sure the public both understands and has input into system development is critical if we are going to be able to make this work."

Dr. Maves and coauthors reported that some of the authors of their guidance are United States government employees or military service members, and that their opinions and assertions do not reflect the official views or position of those institutions. Dr. Keller reported no disclosures related to the ECMO guidance.

SOURCES: Maves RC et al. Chest. 2020 Apr 11. pii: S0012-3692(20)30691-7. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2020.03.063; Seethara R and Keller SP. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2020 Apr 15. doi: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.202003-233PS.

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