Unite and Conquer: Infection control professionals in their “golden moment”
By John Embil & Molly Blake
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, November 8, 2021
The current COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on a group of healthcare workers that few know existed. This group are the infection prevention and control professionals, who are in their global “golden moment”.
The overriding goal of infection prevention and control (IP&C) experts in Manitoba's health care facilities is to prevent the spread of infections associated with health care services. In the Winnipeg Health Region, some of their responsibilities include creating policies and procedures for the prevention of transmission of "germs" in all health care settings, so as to assist in the delivery of safe, and quality care; monitoring the amount and type of health care-related infections in order to prevent and reduce their spread; assessing products for their safety; and providing education to all staff, patients, residents, clients, family and visitors on important IP&C issues.
There is no shortage of germs to fight. They range from familiar viruses like varicella (chickenpox) and the influenza virus family, to a variety of newer, antimicrobial-resistant "Superbug" organisms such as methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Clostridioides difficile (C. diff), and Candida auris that can cause significant concern in hospitals, long term care, and community facilities, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable.
Given that IP&C experts work behind the scenes, their important role in the delivery of safe health care services do not often generate a great deal of fanfare and recognition, even within the health care system. It seldom has.
Historically speaking, measures to prevent the transmission of germs date back to the beginning of civilization. In particular, in the 1800's, Dr. Ignace Semmelweis earned the honorific The Savior of Mothers after he discovered handwashing greatly reduced maternal infections and deaths due to "childbed fever". Later, Florence Nightingale, history's famous "Lady With the Lamp", made many significant strides regarding patient accommodation within hospitals.
Modern advances include the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and sophisticated technologies for equipment and environmental disinfection such as ultraviolet rays. Yet, the basics of infection prevention remain unchanged with technological advances still relying upon those basics.
For example, good old-fashioned elbow grease and physical removal of microbes are still required as the first step. Likewise, the use of face shields, respiratory protection, gowns, and gloves by healthcare workers did not originate during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has often been a requirement across Manitoba's health care facilities as a means of reducing the risk to patients, residents, clients, and staff.
It is important to remember, however, that infection prevention is not just the sole responsibility of IP&C professionals working in the health care system. It's an onus we all share.
COVID-19 has highlighted some of key IP&C tactics each of us can employ not just in the workplace, but also in the home and recreation environments. These include getting vaccines to protect us from infections caused by COVID-19, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, and hepatitis A and B; cleaning our hands; covering our coughs, maintaining physical distance, and regularly disinfecting our environments.
As essential, effective, and proven as these simple measures are, they are also often overlooked. When they are, germs have an opportunity to thrive, multiply, and spread.
As we head into respiratory virus season and work to contain the next wave(s) of the current pandemic, the best possible outcomes can only be achieved if and when we "unite and conquer".
COVID-19 may have put infection control into the spotlight, but it's up to each of us to keep it there. Do your part! If you are tired of hearing about the need to follow the basics of infection prevention and control, you are urged to remember that they are recommended and stressed for the very best reasons: they work, and they save lives.
For more information and resources about infection prevention and control, and for more about what you can do to make a difference, visit wrha.mb.ca/infection-prevention-control/.
John Embil is a physician specialist in Infectious Diseases and Infection Prevention and Control and medical lead for the Infection Prevention and Control Program for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Molly Blake is a registered nurse who is a specialist in Infection Prevention and Control and the Regional Director for the Infection Prevention and Control Program of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.