ROANOKE, Va. — I have watched the unfolding Ebola crisis—and the few transmissions of the Ebola virus in the United States—with concern for what I should do to protect my employees. Current protocol calls for all patients who have traveled to a West African nation and who present themselves to a healthcare facility to be quarantined immediately until proper tests for the virus can be performed. The linen used to treat that patient is to be held in a soiled state in the room with the patient, and if the patient is found to have the virus, the linen should be incinerated.
In a perfect world, linen contaminated with Ebola would therefore never reach the laundry. But we all know we do not live in a perfect world. The normal wash process will effectively remove and destroy the Ebola virus, but it is so highly contagious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wants to err on the side of caution and burn any potentially contaminated linen.
In the past few weeks, I have seen various groups offering presentations to educate managers and employees about the Ebola virus. While many of these programs are well-meaning, I think they have missed the key shortfall in our current system of handling infectious linen.
In my opinion, the most certain cause for several nurses coming down with Ebola after treating a patient in Dallas does not revolve around whether or not they wore the proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
I would humbly suggest that the flaw in the system is the lack of training and follow-up regarding ways to remove the prospective apparel after use in a way that protects employees from contamination.
I am not an expert on nursing care or infectious diseases, but I am very knowledgeable about the laundry business. We deal with mountains of soiled linen on a regular basis. In some cases, linen from infectious patients is being sent to the laundry for days before the patient is properly diagnosed. As laundry managers, we ensure that our employees wear the proper protective apparel at all times.
The key question to be asked is: How much training is given in the proper removal of the PPE to ensure that employees and their clothing are not contaminated in the process? How do you remove your gloves without contaminating yourself? What is the technique employees should use to remove their protective gowns?
Several companies have rushed to distribute videos dealing with the professional bedside staff and the extensive PPE that should be worn when treating Ebola patients. These videos are way over the top when it comes to laundry soil-sort employees.
What we need is for an organization to put together a simple video to show the proper use of PPE in the soil-sort area of the laundry. This video should show the proper PPE to be worn, the best way to put it on, and the recommended way to take it off.
Ebola is extremely scary and has caught the attention of the media and healthcare professionals. I strongly recommend that we drill down to the simple procedure of putting on and properly taking off PPE as the single most important thing our industry can do in reaction to this situation.