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Simply putting on and removing personal protective equipment in a clinical setting can be daunting. Learning and following the proper methods for the task, however, are often the difference between staying safe and exposing yourself and others to deadly diseases.
Teresa Aikens and Amanda Johnson, nurses responsible for infection control at the University of South Alabama Medical Center and USA Children’s & Women’s Hospital, spent time during a recent state training learning the proper protocols. Now, they are ready to teach them to hospital volunteer emergency teams who handle serious infectious diseases.
Alabama’s Center for Emergency Preparedness sponsored a two-day course to prepare hospital, law enforcement and health department staff to use the equipment that has been proven to save lives.
Instructors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness led the class. Topics included personal protection and teaching others to take the same safety measures.
Until the advent of ebola, most health care facilities seemed pretty well prepared to handle infectious diseases, said Aikens, a nurse manager at USA’s Medical Center responsible for infection prevention and control and employee health.
After seeing how a single, simple mistake can endanger health care workers, and potentially others, preparedness has moved to a new level, she said.
The state is looking for health care facilities that are ready for the new protocols, Aikens said. The Medical Center would like to be one. In fact, it’s likely to be anyway, since it treats many patients with complex medical diagnoses.
This training focused specifically on Category A agents — the diseases that make headlines, including ebola, SARS, MERS and anthrax.
Someone infected with those viruses “can walk in the door any day,” said Aikens.
The diseases are frightening, even for health care workers, the two nursing leaders said. Preparedness is the best step toward avoiding disaster.
Already, more than two dozen nurses have volunteered for the infection control team at the Medical Center. They can be deployed at any time and have agreed to follow a required 21-day quarantine when a crisis abates. Physician team members are still being selected.
Hospital leaders have determined that only doctors and nurses will be allowed to serve on the infectious disease teams — and will perform tasks including respiratory therapy, lab tests, as well as cleaning and handling food. By limiting the number of staff and departments involved, the chance for infection to spread also is limited, Aikens said.
The first infectious disease training class at the Medical Center is slated for July 17. Officials at Children’s & Women’s are still creating a team. To remain prepared once the training is complete, team members already have plans to continue to practice putting on and removing the protective gear on a regular basis — to stay ready for the next emergency.
Johnson estimates that it takes 20 minutes to put on the suit and another 20 to take it off, since every bit of skin needs to be covered and every piece of gear removed without allowing the exterior to touch bare skin.
Participants work with buddies to supervise the process of suiting up and removing the gear, checking off each step. Since it’s complex and cumbersome, the two plan that their volunteer response teams will practice putting on and removing the gear at least once a week.
The gear is also hot, both women said, so they have chosen a variety that includes a clear plastic face shield and an internal fan. Those qualities help keep the temperature bearable and prevent the face shield from fogging up and interfering with vision. The clear face shield also is less intimidating for patients.
“Our patients and employees come first,” said Johnson, who is Children’s & Women’s infection prevention and control coordinator. “We want to give them every tool to deal with whatever comes through the doorway.”
“Every hospital needs to be prepared,” Aikens added. “But it’s crucial for us. We’re the most likely to face these issues. We will do it, and we will be ready. Our system should be the community leader.”
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