Infectious Disease Expert

Infection preventionists are “essential” to the COVID-19 response

Almost overnight, infection disease experts in the United States went from obscurity to sought after sources. In some cases, such as Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, they’ve become household names.

So too, has the spotlight shifted at IDNs and hospitals on the role of infection preventionist.

Keith Kaye MD, professor of medicine, division of Infectious Diseases, University of Michigan Medical School, and past president of Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, said in the fight against COVID-19, infection preventionists, or “IPs” are involved in all essential components for preparation and response. They are involved in key decision making and planning with regards to issues ranging from PPE supply and use, methods to perform urgent surgery and procedures safely, and when necessary, helping to optimize infection control in field hospitals and temporary structures built to manage overflow of COVID patients. “They are also very important with regards to helping with the messaging to patients, the public and healthcare workers.”

Infection prevention in hot spots

For many hospitals and health systems within what are considered hotspots for COVID-19 cases, maintaining proper infection prevention amid a crisis is undoubtedly a challenge. “We are not working in a controlled environment – and in many cases, we have to make important decisions based on little data and rapidly emerging science,” he said.

The basics of IP, and adherence to those basics, remain critically important. Examples of critical IP basics include hand hygiene, appropriate use of airborne, droplet and contact precautions, and making certain that healthcare workers are aware of how to don and doff protective equipment appropriately and safely. “It is also important for IPs to work with hospital leadership to help deliver consistent and clear messaging to healthcare workers and patients. With social media and the internet many ‘urban health legends’ can rapidly emerge and it is important to message clearly and consistently.”

Learning, and looking ahead

Our healthcare system will need to be less reliant on single use infection prevention items (like n95 masks) in the future, Kaye said. “We will need to have reprocessing alternatives clearly worked out. Hospitals will also have to consider stockpiling more PPE and avoid ‘just in time’ ordering of supplies.”

We also are too reliant on China for many of medical supplies, “and when they are dealing with their own pandemic issues, our supply chain can be hugely impacted.”

Kaye said as much as we tried to learn and prepare after SARS and H1N1, we clearly were not prepared for this pandemic. “We have faced critical challenges with regards to PPE supply, ventilator availability, surge capacity of hospitals, and testing methodologies and supplies. Also, public health in some areas was completely overwhelmed even in the early stages of the pandemic – we need to commit to a stronger public health infrastructure as a country moving forward.”