This is part one of a four-part article on infection prevention techniques that prepare facilities for possible pandemic outbreaks.

Hospitals are more aware than ever of the need to safeguard patients and employees from infection outbreaks — thanks in part to the Ebola scare and recent Measles cases. While neither of these examples reached pandemic proportions, they elicited important questions: Are hospitals equipped to handle a pandemic? Do they have the resources to cope with an influx of patients? Is their infection control policy adequate?

According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control (APIC), there is room for improvement. During the Ebola outbreak, APIC surveyed infection prevention specialists at U.S. hospitals and found that only 6 percent were prepared to receive a patient with the Ebola virus.

As outbreaks such as Ebola, Measles, and Influenza A govern the news, more facilities are realizing the importance of preparing for a possible pandemic. For some this means developing a pandemic plan from scratch. For others it involves updating processes already in place. It is imperative that environmental services (EVS) executives review infection control programs and prepare cleaning crews to respond in case of an outbreak.

From Plans To Practice

At Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle, the Ebola outbreak was a catalyst for staff to develop a program to combat infections. Initially, the program was geared toward policies and procedures for Ebola patients, but during the process, the hospital realized that the program applied to all emergency preparedness operations.

“This exercise helped us refine all our emergency processes — not just for Ebola, but for Measles or any superbug,” says Heidi Dunbar, director of environmental services.

Not only did the hospital refine its policies, but it also had a chance to put them into practice when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent a few patients to Seattle Children’s Hospital for Ebola testing.

“It was a good time to implement what we put into place,” says Dunbar.

Fortunately, the patients admitted tested negative for Ebola; however, this “fire drill,” as Dunbar refers to it, revealed certain gaps in the policy that needed to be addressed. For example, children and parents would grab the curtain when walking through the decontamination unit, so the curtains had to be replaced with disposables.

“The Ebola scare was a great opportunity to see how well existing plans worked,” says Barbara Smith, nurse epidemiologist at Mt. Sinai Health System−St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals, New York.

Smith, who is also a member of APIC’s communications committee, notes that infection control policies are living documents subject to frequent revisions.

“We developed a plan after the 9/11 crisis, and we pulled it out and dusted it off,” she says. “But in reality we found we had to change a lot based on what the CDC was finding. Things do change, and there are new products in the market, so we had to keep up.”

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Training Staff On Proper Infection Prevention