Pandemic boosts awareness of the importance of infection prevention and control
By Mike Daly
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, May 10, 2021
A crisis doesn't really change what's important, but it does tend to sharpen our focus on it.
That's been the case with infection prevention and control efforts throughout the pandemic, says Molly Blake, a registered nurse and Director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's (WRHA) Infection Prevention and Control (IP&C) program.
"The need to minimize and prevent the acquisition and transmission of hospital-acquired infections is no more important now that it was before the pandemic, nor will that need change after the pandemic is over," Blake says. "It’s just that the impact of not focusing on IP&C is more evident and it is garnering more attention."
Part of the reason for our current focus on IP&C can be chalked up to basic human nature, Blake says.
"When we've asked staff about what prompts them to clean their hands before, and after patient care encounters, they most frequently responded that it helped keep them and their patients safe," she says. "Early on in the pandemic, after we experienced a few outbreaks and people started seeing how easily COVID-19 could be transmitted, the focus on infection prevention increased even further."
"That was a good thing," she adds.
"I definitely think that the added focus on IP&C has made a difference in our efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, and that without it, we would not have been as successful as we have been. Health-care staff have done a great job following IP&C measures and recommendations aimed at keeping them and their patients, residents and clients safe."
It's also worked out well for preventing the acquisition and transmission of other germs such as influenza and the other respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses traditionally seen in the winter. There has been a dramatic decrease of infection caused by these viruses this year.
"We’ve had very low rates throughout the whole season, which are nothing like we’ve seen for the past handful of years," Blake says. "Precautions such as maintaining physical distance, hand hygiene, wearing masks, and limiting our contact with others has had a positive impact."
That doesn't mean, however, that we're out of the woods just yet. Even in the midst of a pandemic, IP&C measures require careful thought and evaluation of every patient care interaction to ensure that the proper measures are being taken, to protect all in the health care environment.
Blake says, "I think there’s more awareness and understanding of the importance of IP&C measures, but we still have to be wary of the attitude that ‘there are 500 things to do in a day and I only have time for 300 of them,' that sometimes can make attention to IP&C measures more challenging."
Blake speculates that there are a number of other reasons why people might not be as focused on infection prevention as they should be.
"One is that you don’t see the immediate impact of what you do or don’t do," she says. "If I don’t clean my hands today and a patient gets an infection four days later, I may not realize that my lack of hand hygiene is what caused their infection, whereas, if medication is neglected or an incorrect medication is administered, the impact is clear and immediate.
"I think another reason is that people don't realize that IP&C as a medical necessity similar to medications, dressings, diagnostics, therapies and all of the other things typically done by health-care professionals. Something as simple and vital as cleaning your hands and equipment doesn’t have that same sort of association with being fundamental to patient safety."
There's also a new reason why some people are at risk of decreasing their focus on IP&C protocols: the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
"We’re getting a lot of questions from the public and from staff around why, since more people are getting immunized against COVID-19, we aren't relaxing our preventative measures," Blake says. "It's important to remember that just because you've had the vaccine doesn’t mean you can stop maintaining your physical distance, stop wearing face protection or stop practicing appropriate hand hygiene. Vaccines are just an additional tool in the toolkit; they are not a cure."
Blake reminded us that "while the vaccines are very effective, they are not a 100% guarantee of protection against COVID-19, so we have to bundle all of the preventative measures into our daily routines at home and at work!"
"COVID-19 vaccinations are important and do make us safer, but we have to keep up our guard," Blake says. "The fact that someone has received the vaccine is wonderful. They are less likely to get COVID-19 but if they do, the infection will probably be a lot less severe…but there is still a risk. The fact is that we are still seeing outbreaks in the community and in our facilities. We need to make sure we remain attentive and on alert. Everyone's safety depends on it."
In fact, Blake is hoping that our heightened focus on infection prevention remains with us long after the current pandemic ends.
"The need to focus on IP&C is going to be with us long after the pandemic is just a memory. It's a fundamental part of keeping people safe."
Mike Daly is a Communications Specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.