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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.