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COVID-19 infection at a psychiatric hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: Clinical service planning and challenges

Saeeda Paruk
Ntokozo N. Ngcobo
Enver Karim
Andrew Tomita
Suvira Ramlall


Background: South Africa had over 4 million cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections and more than 1 million COVID-19-related deaths. Despite the devastating psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little qualitative, critical evaluation of government mental health services in this resource-limited setting.
Aim: The authors describe the clinical service plan and response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a government psychiatric hospital.
Setting: KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Methods: A descriptive narrative overview of the specialised psychiatric hospital’s clinical response (April 2020 – March 2021) to the COVID-19 pandemic was undertaken in the following domains: screening policy; testing and swabbing policy; staff training and monitoring; and restructuring the wards to accommodate mental health care users (MHCUs) with suspected cases of COVID-19.
Results: The in-depth narrative reviews led to the introduction of staff training, routine COVID-19 reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing of all MHCUs, the creation of designated quarantine and isolation facilities and screening of physical health status of patients with COVID-19 prior to transfer being implemented to prevent an outbreak or increased morbidity or mortality.
Conclusion: Implementing a service plan early which included staff training, screening and routine COVID-19 testing services for psychiatric admissions in a rapidly evolving environment with few additional resources was challenging. The absence of guidelines early in the pandemic that addressed the unique needs of a clinical psychiatric inpatient population is a noteworthy learning point.
Contribution: The article highlights that the inpatient infrastructural requirements and clinical management protocols of acutely psychiatrically ill inpatients, in the context of infectious outbreaks, require dedicated task teams and bespoke policies.

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 2078-6786
print ISSN: 1608-9685