New York City Inpatient Detox Unit Keeps Running: Here's How

Keji Fagbemi, MD

May 29, 2020

Substance use disorder and its daily consequences take no breaks even during a pandemic. The stressors created by COVID-19, including deaths of loved ones and the disruptions to normal life from policies aimed at flattening the curve, seem to have increased substance use.

I practice as a hospitalist with an internal medicine background and specialty in addiction medicine at BronxCare Health System's inpatient detoxification unit, a 24/7, 20-bed medically-supervised unit in South Bronx in New York City. It is one of the comprehensive services provided by the BronxCare's life recovery center and addiction services, which also includes an outpatient clinic, opioid treatment program, inpatient rehab, and a half-way house.

Inpatient detoxification units like ours are designed to treat serious addictions and chemical dependency and prevent and treat life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and signs or complications. Our patients come from all over the city and its adjoining suburbs, including from emergency room referrals, referral clinics, courts and the justice system, walk-ins, and self-referrals.


At a time when many inpatient detoxification units within the city were temporarily closed due to fear of inpatient spread of the virus or to provide extra COVID beds in anticipation for the peak surge, we have been able to provide a needed service. In fact, several other inpatient detoxification programs within the city have been able to refer their patients to our facility.

Individuals with substance use disorder have historically been a vulnerable and underserved population and possess high risk for multiple health problems as well as preexisting conditions. Many have limited life options financially, educationally, and with housing, and encounter barriers to accessing primary health care services, including preventive services.

The introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic into these patients' precarious health situations only made things worse as many of the limited resources for patients with substance use disorder were diverted to battling the pandemic. Numerous inpatient and outpatient addiction services, for example, were temporarily shut down. This has led to an increase in domestic violence, and psychiatric decompensation, including psychosis, suicidal attempts, and worsening of medical comorbidities in these patients.

Our wake-up call came when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York in early March. Within a short period of time the state became the epicenter for COVID-19. With the projection of millions of cases being positive and the number of new cases doubling every third day at the onset in New York City, we knew we had a battle brewing and needed to radically transform our mode of operation fast.

Our first task was to ensure the safety of our patients and the dedicated health workers attending to them. Instead of shutting down we decided to focus on education, screening, mask usage, social distancing, and intensifying hygiene. We streamlined the patient point of entry through one screening site, while also brushing up on our history-taking to intently screen for COVID-19. This included not just focusing on travels from China, but from Europe and other parts of the world.

Yes, we did ask patients about cough, fever, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, feeling fatigued, severe body ache, and possible contact with someone who is sick or has traveled overseas.

But we were also attuned to the increased rate of community spread and the presentation of other symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell, early in the process. Hence we were able to triage patients with suspected cases to the appropriate sections of the hospital for further screening, testing, and evaluation, instead of having those patients admitted to the detox unit.

Early in the process a huddle team was instituted with daily briefing of staff lasting 30 minutes or less. This team consists of physicians, nurses, a physician assistant, a social worker, and a counselor.

In addition to discussing treatment plans for the patient, they deliberate on the public health information from the hospital's COVID-19 command center, New York State Department of Health, the Office of Mental Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning the latest evidence-based information. These discussions have helped us modify our policies and practices.

We instituted a no visiting rule during a short hospital stay of 5-7 days, and this was initiated weeks in advance of many institutions, including nursing homes with vulnerable populations. Our admitting criteria was reviewed to allow for admission of only those patients who absolutely needed inpatient substance use disorder treatment, including patients with severe withdrawal symptoms and signs, comorbidities, or neuropsychiatric manifestations that made them unsafe for outpatient or home detoxification.

Others were triaged to the outpatient services which was amply supported with telemedicine. Rooms and designated areas of the building were earmarked as places for isolation/quarantine if suspected COVID-19 cases were identified pending testing. To assess patients' risk of COVID-19, we do point-of-care nasopharyngeal swab testing with polymerase chain reaction.

Regarding face masks, patients and staff were fitted with ones early in the process. Additionally, staff were trained on the importance of face mask use and how to ensure you have a tight seal around the mouth and nose and were provided with other appropriate personal protective equipment.

Concerning social distancing, we reduced the patient population capacity for the unit down to 50% and offered only single room admissions. Social distancing was encouraged in the unit, including in the television and recreation room and dining room, and during small treatment groups of less than six individuals. Daily temperature checks with noncontact handheld thermometers were enforced for staff and anyone coming into the life recovery center.

Patients are continuously being educated on the presentations of COVID-19 and encouraged to report any symptoms. Any staff feeling sick or having symptoms are encouraged to stay home. Rigorous and continuous cleaning of surfaces, especially of areas subjected to common use, is done frequently by the hospital housekeeping and environmental crew and is the order of the day.

Even though we seem to have passed the peak of the pandemic curve for the city, we know that we are not out of the woods yet. We feel confident that our experience has made us better prepared going forward. The changes we have implemented have become part and parcel of daily caring for our patient population. We believe they are here to stay for a while, or at least until the pandemic is curtailed as we strive toward getting an effective vaccine.

Dr. Fagbemi is a hospitalist at BronxCare Health System, a not-for-profit health and teaching hospital system serving South and Central Bronx in New York. He has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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