The term “health care worker” conjures up visions of a bedside nurse, doctor or someone tending to patients in the emergency department. However, specialized roles make a hospital run smoothly and achieve its fundamental aim in keeping patients and employees safe.
An infection preventionist is one such specialist: a detective of sorts, whose role is to sniff out situations that can spread infection within the hospital. This potential spread could be between patients, from patients to staff, from staff to patients, or among staff.
In other words, germs. Meet the germ patrol.
“My department’s main responsibility is to identify, monitor, control and plan how to prevent the spread of disease ahead of time by breaking the chain of infection within all areas of the hospital,” says Valerie Herzog, infection prevention manager at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
To accomplish this tall order, Herzog and her infection prevention colleagues work with teams throughout the hospital, including clinical units and ancillary departments such as engineering and facilities.
“The areas we monitor and survey for infection include air quality, construction, renovation, food handling and safety, cleaning, disinfection and sterilization efforts, and utility water safety,” says Herzog.
In addition to their detective work, her department receives, digests and disseminates guidelines and recommendations from various agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to staff throughout the hospital. This means more than just passing out information. Infection preventionists are educators, working with front-line staff to mentor them and keep the importance of simple preventive measures — such as hand hygiene and cough etiquette — top of mind.
Patient education also comes with the territory. Isolation precautions obviously play an important role for safety in a hospital setting, but they are important at home and in the community as well.
“We teach patients about the importance of facial coverings and washing them regularly, hand-washing and social distancing,” says Herzog. “But regardless of our current situation, we also educate patients on vaccinations. In children, vaccines can prevent them from spreading disease to family, classmates and communities, and provide immunity to them as well from potentially life-threatening diseases. In adults, vaccines can prevent thousands of hospitalizations, unnecessary suffering and deaths from preventable diseases.”
Sometimes, says Herzog, her work requires solving cases that came from outside the hospital. “We had a gentleman in our emergency department with a cough, fever and muscle aches,” says Herzog. “He was admitted with what looked like pneumonia, but was later diagnosed as Legionnaires’ disease, a water-borne pathogen.”
Because Legionnaires’ is a reportable disease, the infection prevention department collaborated with the San Diego Department of Public Health on the case.
The patient believed he had contracted the disease from a new air conditioning unit he had installed in his home, but after discussing his activities over the previous few weeks, the infection prevention team solved the mystery. The patient contracted the disease while emptying an old hot tub by hand with a bucket. This process aerated contaminated water — a common way of inhaling the bacteria, particularly if you are someone with a weakened immune system.
“He was relieved to understand the source, learn how to avoid getting infected in the future, and happy that he didn’t have to replace his new air conditioning system,” says Herzog.
As a former front-line nurse for 25 years, Herzog has nothing but praise for Sharp Grossmont staff, who have had to incorporate so many new practices and protocols in the recent months.
“They’ve been so adaptive and brave, absorbing new information, sometimes daily, all the while continuing to provide compassionate care,” she says. “They are truly Sharp Grossmont’s greatest treasure, and it’s a pleasure to help them feel protected and keep them safe.”