Expert: COVID-19 Likely to Change Design of Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms

By Thomas Crocker
Thursday, May 14, 2020

COVID-19 led to a surge in demand for airborne infection isolation rooms (AIIRs) in hospitals. The pandemic is certain to have a lasting impact on the design of these rooms, according to one expert.

An AIIR uses negative pressure to keep airborne pathogens from an infected individual from escaping into the hospital. These rooms can also use positive pressure to prevent pathogens from entering and infecting a patient with a compromised immune system. MD News recently spoke with Eric Mitchell, PE, Principal and Director of Mechanical Engineering at New York City engineering consulting firm Goldman Copeland, about AIIRs in the age of COVID-19.

MD News: Have you seen an uptick in demand for AIIRs?

Mitchell: Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a need for isolation rooms and, more importantly, room conservation and upgrades. With respect to the recent unprecedented outbreak, the modern world has never seen such an immense need for proper isolation and containment of infected patients. I am sure that this will change the standards for how we design hospitals in the future. There will be a greater need for flexibility to be tightly integrated with energy conservation.

MD News: Is there a gap between the need for AIIRs and their availability?

Mitchell: Apart from the recent pandemic, the planning, construction and quantity of isolation rooms within a facility was determined by a risk assessment. Relatively speaking, in most cases, this risk was considered low and in line with currently available facilities. Most isolation rooms were typically being used for noninfectious patients due to space limitations. With respect to future hospital renovations and facility planning, it would be prudent to incorporate a flexible approach that would allow a typical patient room to be converted to an isolation room with variable airflow controls to achieve the proper pressurization while maintaining comfort control.

MD News: What does rapidly engineering and placing an AIIR entail?

Mitchell: Current facilities can be readily adapted for isolation use with minimal costs and can be compliant with Facility Guidelines Institute code with the use of a HEPA filter fan unit. Such portable contamination control units are readily available and can be easily installed in a normal hospital room. They are capable of filtering and increasing circulation within the space, connecting to the building HVAC system only after the air is put through a HEPA filter.

MD News: What do you envision for the future of AIIRs?

Mitchell: The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly change our approach to flexibility in the design of hospital room environment control, as well as energy conservation and, most of all, health and safety. Much like the current design standards for research laboratory facilities, future planning and designs should make use of variable airflow terminal devices and enhanced zone controls to adjust airflow rates in order to achieve proper pressurization. Increased use of HEPA filtration and controls could monitor and bypass these devices when not required.