Skip to main content

APTA is receiving many questions regarding management of patients during the pandemic — whether patients are asymptomatic, or with diagnosed or suspected COVID-19. The following information addresses many of your concerns, for outpatient, home health, long-term care facility, acute care, and school-based settings; as well as in the areas of post-intensive care syndrome and wound care management, and recommendations for helping your patients stay active while they’re at home. You’ll also find links at the end for additional resources on infectious disease control, volunteer opportunities, unemployment issues, and more.

All information is based on national and international recommendations and guidelines, when available. This information is not intended to be applicable to every scenario, but to give you information to make decisions based on the best available evidence and your professional judgment. As more information arises, we will update this information.

Outpatient Setting

Some of the toughest decisions about whether to see a patient or temporarily close a clinic involve judgments about a specific situation or patient, the clinic's ability to adhere to infection control protocols, and available alternatives, such as visits using telehealth. Also, keep in mind that many outpatient physical therapy providers could see a surge in patients with post intensive-care syndrome following recovery from the disease. All providers should learn more about PICS and how it can be managed in the outpatient setting. Details on PICS are below under their own heading.

Determining if Patients Should Be Seen in Person in the Outpatient Setting Because of Heightened Risk of COVID-19

All health care providers are at some risk for exposure to COVID-19, whether in the workplace or in the community. Providers in any risk exposure category (high, medium, low, or no risk) who develop signs or symptoms compatible with COVID-19 must contact their established point of contact (public health authorities or their facility's occupational health program) for medical evaluation prior to returning to work. If an employee is confirmed to have the infection, the employer should inform other employees and patients who were in contact with the individual up to 48 hours before becoming symptomatic, keeping the confidentiality of the affected employee as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act. All employees should self-monitor for symptoms and respond accordingly. Read about more APTA outpatient resources.

One challenge to providing outpatient care is cancellation of appointments, whether by the provider or the patient. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, you can postpone all nonessential appointments or shift these appointments to phone visits. You should carefully explain these options to the patient, along with the reasons for doing so, such as the importance of protecting them, the people around them, your other patients, and you and your staff. You'll find resources to help you with these efforts on the APTA Telehealth webpage. It is recommended that you suspend any cancellation or rescheduling fees during the emergency and document the reasons for cancellation or suspension of care.

Under the APTA Code of Ethics for the Physical Therapist, you should provide notice and information about alternatives for obtaining care if you terminate the provider relationship while the patient or client continues to need physical therapist services. In addition, if you are no longer taking new patients, please inform the public by including this information on your office voicemail, website, and your APTA Find a PT profile.

Consider these factors for in-clinic physical therapy sessions:

  • Are you (or is your patient) experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or feeling unwell?
  • Have you (or has your patient) been in close contact with someone who is suspected to have, or was diagnosed with, COVID-19?
  • Have you (or has your patient) traveled to an area deemed high risk?
  • Will your patient's condition worsen or deteriorate if physical therapist services are not provided?
  • Are you (or is your patient) in a high-risk category, such as diabetes, heart condition, or older age?
  • Can you safely screen your patient for COVID-19 symptoms?
  • Is appropriate PPE available?

You, and anyone on your staff, should stay home if:

  • You are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.
  • You are not feeling well for any other reason.
  • You have been in close contact with someone who is suspected to have, or was diagnosed with, COVID-19.
  • You recently traveled to an area deemed high risk.
  • You are a high-risk individual, and PPE is not available and social distancing guidelines cannot be adhered to. (Also see CDC's Interim Guidance for Business Employers.)

The length of time that you or anyone on your staff should stay home if they are asymptomatic but have been exposed to someone suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19 depends on their epidemiologic risk classification per CDC guidance. Criteria for return to work for you or your staff after being symptomatic or diagnosed with COVID-19 varies depending on whether a test-based or non-test-based strategy was used.

Consider an alternative care model and/or advise patients to not come into your clinic if:

  • They are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.
  • They are not feeling well for any other reason.
  • They have been in close contact with someone who is suspected to have, or was diagnosed with, COVID-19.
  • They cannot be provided appropriate PPE.
  • They are in the high-risk category. (Also see CDC's People at Higher Risk and Special Populations.)

If a patient requires care and cannot be seen in person:

  • Advise Medicare patients that they have an option for certain telehealth services, such as an e-visit.
  • Before advising patients covered by other payers, follow the payer's updated policies, or contact the payer to determine the option for telehealth or other remote services.

Physical Space and Operations To Reduce Risk of Infection

In facilities that are providing care to patients who require in-person physical therapist services, here are some general modifications to consider:

  • Evaluate your treatment and waiting room space design to ensure that patients are a minimum of six feet apart from one another at all times.
  • Perform proper hand hygiene frequently after touching surfaces and patients.
  • Provide one-on-one patient care only.
  • Clean all equipment, devices, and surfaces between each patient interaction per CDC recommendations.
  • Adjust your scheduling to minimize the number of patients in the waiting room and to minimize patient overlap. Do not have patients reuse the same sign-in pen.
  • Take patient temperatures upon entry to treatment and ask about recent travel.
  • Advise patients to wear a face mask or covering at all times while in the clinic. If your patient does not have a mask, provide one.
  • If you are treating a patient who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, or if you or the patient is in a high-risk category, use recommended PPE (mask and gloves), and follow the CDC Standard Precautions for All Patient Care. If protective gear is not available, cancel the in-person visit and provide remote services to the extent appropriate and available.
  • If possible, provide home programs for the patient to follow to prevent deconditioning while the patient cannot attend therapy sessions.
  • If a patient requires care and cannot be seen in person, contact the referring physician as well as the payer to determine the option for telehealth or other remote services.
  • Develop a communication plan for contacting all active patients to notify them of clinic hour changes, reschedule or cancel appointments, and transition as appropriate to eligible telehealth services and other needed communications. The plan should include disaster preparedness and how patients will be contacted in any sudden onset disaster.

Home Health Setting

Many home services manage patients who require physical therapist services that are vital to their recovery or maintained health. There are many resources on various aspects of the management of patients with COVID-19. APTA believes that many home health physical therapy providers will experience a surge in patients with PICS (see above).

HPSO has written an article on home care in the time of the novel coronavirus that details information on important considerations to providing home health care.

As with outpatient settings, one challenge impacting patient care is cancellation of appointments, whether by the provider or the patient. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, home health therapists can postpone all nonessential appointments or shift these appointments to phone visits, and these options should be explained carefully to the patient, along with the reasons for doing so, such as the importance of protecting them, the people around them, your other patients, and you and your staff. You will find resources to help you with these efforts on the APTA Telehealth webpage. It is recommended that you suspend any cancellation or rescheduling fees during the emergency and document the reasons for cancellation or suspension of care.

Under the APTA Code of Ethics for the Physical Therapist, you should provide notice and information about alternatives for obtaining care if you terminate the provider relationship while the patient or client continues to need physical therapist services.

Long-Term Care Facilities Setting

Specific to long-term care facilities, including skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living have published guidance on restricting visitors, nonessential personnel, and community activities to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

Acute Care Setting

Inpatient facilities manage patients who require physical therapist services that are vital to their recovery or maintained health. There are many resources on various aspects of the management of patients with COVID-19.

  • APTA, the APTA Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Section, the APTA Academy of Acute Care Physical Therapy, the World Confederation for Physical Therapy, and other international professional associations have endorsed the Physiotherapy Management for COVID-19 in the Acute Hospital Setting: Recommendations to Guide Clinical Practice. The guidance focuses on workforce planning and preparation including screening for physical therapy, as well as the actual delivery of interventions and PPE requirements. It includes more than 60 recommendations ranging from shift planning to the specific types of PPE PTs should wear.
  • The World Health Organization provides technical guidance on the clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection when COVID-19 is suspected as well as home care for patients with suspected COVID-19 who have mild symptoms.
  • Physiopedia has free online documents and courses for the respiratory management of COVID-19, including specific clinical syndromes associated with COVID-19 outlined by WHO. Also, the British Thoracic Society has compiled information, guidance, and resources to support the respiratory community during the COVID-19 pandemic, including information specific to management of critical care patients, safety of nebulizer use, interstitial lung disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and more.
  • "How Can Acute Care PTs Add Value in a Pandemic?" is a collection of resources from the Academy of Acute Care Physical Therapy, including this webinar slide deck and recording, "Acute Care Physical Therapy and COVID-19: How Can We Add the Greatest Value?"
  • "Physical Therapist Determination of Discharge Disposition in the Acute Care Setting" is a study published in Journal of Acute Care Physical Therapy, July 2019.

School-Based Physical Therapist Services

APTA has prepared specific guidance for PTs and PTAs working with the pediatric population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Information on school closings and IEP services and remote learning can be found in the document.

Wound Care

The Alliance of Wound Care Stakeholders state that wound care is an essential, not elective, service that prevents hospital admissions and ED visits among a fragile cohort of patients at high-risk of COVID-19.

Post-Intensive Care Syndrome

Patients who have been in the ICU due to COVID-19 may experience post-intensive care syndrome, or PICS, which involves health problems that are present when the patient is in the ICU and may persist after the patient returns home. These problems can involve ICU-acquired weakness, cognitive or brain dysfunction, and mental health conditions.

ICU-acquired weakness is muscle weakness that develops during an ICU stay, such as with COVID-19. It occurs in:

  • 33% of all patients on ventilators.
  • 50% of all patients admitted with severe infection, known as sepsis.
  • Up to 50% of patients who stay in the ICU for at least one week.

Patients who develop the condition experience difficulty in performing activities of daily living, and may take more than a year to fully recover.

Cognitive or brain dysfunction consists of problems with remembering, paying attention, solving problems, and organizing and working on complex tasks, and it occurs in 30%-80% of patients after leaving the ICU. Some people improve during the first year after discharge, while others never fully recover.

Critically ill patients also may develop problems with falling or staying asleep, be subject to nightmares and unwanted memories that trigger physical or emotional reactions, and have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Read more about PICS from the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

These articles in APTA's journal PTJ offer more insight into physical therapist management of PICS:

This PTJ article reports the prevalence and clinical presentation of PICS and provides recommendations for physical examination and outcomes measures, plan of care, and intervention strategies. The authors call for a "yellow flag" screening by PTs to include asking patients who have been hospitalized if they spent time in an ICU and for how long, and if they needed a ventilator, as they could be experiencing or be at risk for PICS.

Recommendations for Patients To Stay Active While They're at Home

Several resources have been developed to encourage physical activity while people are social distancing and staying in their homes. For general exercises, ChoosePT.com offers this video and soon will add videos geared toward geriatric and pediatric patients as well as videos in Spanish. You also can send your patients and clients physical activity resources from the Physical Activity Alliance, general physical activity guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine, and activity tips from the National Council on Aging.


You Might Also Like...

Infectious Disease Control

Preventing infectious disease is everyone's responsibility. Know what you need to do.

Open Access

Envisioning a New Normal for Physical Therapy

Jun 1, 2020

How Interoperability Can Protect and Grow Referrals, Enable Virtual Health, and Improve Care Coordination

Open Access

Pediatric and School-Based Therapy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mar 30, 2020

Stay updated on special considerations in providing physical therapist services to the pediatric population during the COVID-19 pandemic.