By Christopher Cheney
The new leader of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) says the coronavirus pandemic has taught the country many hard lessons about controlling deadly pathogens.
Infection preventionists have been a vital source of expertise during the pandemic. For example, they have played a pivotal role in helping healthcare organizations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in their facilities.
Devin Jopp, EdD, MS, began working as the new CEO of APIC in December. In previous roles, he has worked with prime healthcare stakeholders, including payers, providers, and healthcare information technology professionals. For example, he served as president and CEO at the Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange, which focuses on enhancing the exchange of healthcare information.
In a recent discussion with HealthLeaders, Jopp talked about a range of issues related to infection preventionists during the pandemic. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
HealthLeaders: What are your top priorities in your new role at APIC?
Devin Jopp: Right now, I want to help our members identify and share best practices in the COVID-19 response. I also want to help ensure that we do not see healthcare-associated infections rise while we pay attention to COVID-19. We need to stay focused on other things like MRSA that are out there and be on guard for new infections.
I am very much worried about burnout among infection preventionists, so I want to help prevent burnout. I also want to help recruit new infection preventionists at a time when our country really needs them.
Another one of my goals is around awareness of the need to further infection prevention in all of our care settings, especially long-term care facilities. There was a real miss in long-term care facilities in terms of not having enough infection preventionists on site before the coronavirus pandemic.
Finally, vaccines are certainly going to be important to protect our healthcare workers and the general public. I want to break down the myths and be a source of truth regarding these vaccines.
HL: Where do you think we have made the greatest strides in infection control for the novel coronavirus?
Jopp: Our understanding of the virus has grown significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. We have learned much more about how the virus is spread. For example, we have learned that spread is more airborne than through contamination of surfaces.
We have learned more about the morphology of the virus. We have learned that it is a lipid-based virus, which means that it reacts to water and soap. In the early days of the pandemic, we were worried that we would need other cleaners such as bleach to help control the virus.
We have learned that personal protective equipment and social distancing works. So, if we implement these measures, they are some of the best safeguards that we have.
We have also learned that testing and contact tracing work. When testing and contact tracing are implemented properly, it is a great opportunity for us to help turn the tide on the virus.
HL: What are the primary challenges remaining in infection control of the coronavirus?
Jopp: Clearly, vaccines are going to be an issue. I am worried about resistance, so we need to get enough of our healthcare workers to actually take the vaccines. There are concerns about how quickly the vaccines were developed, but the vaccines are based on science.
The lack of affordable PPE and availability of testing is still a concern that we must address.
The whole idea of COVID-19 fatigue, resistance to wearing masks, and engaging in social gatherings is a huge challenge for us. We must be able to overcome these challenges to control the coronavirus infection rate.
HL: How can healthcare IT play a role in control of the coronavirus?
Jopp: National surveillance is one of the big learnings that came out of the pandemic, and we need to enhance it. Electronic health record systems need to enhance the level of their data sharing.
We really need to look at how local and state health departments as well as healthcare providers share data. Now, we realize that this kind of sharing is not working at the level that it needs to be. During the pandemic, we could have been more nimble and have more accurate data if this kind of sharing was better.
We also need standardization of public health registries and to try to normalize those registries to make sure that we have accurate data and that it is reported quickly.
All of this points to the need to have true interoperability. We need to make sure that—from the patient health record all the way through to healthcare facilities and government agencies—we can communicate in a way that is seamless. We have been working on interoperability for decades, and we still have work to do.
HL: How will the coronavirus pandemic affect infection prevention efforts after the crisis has passed?
Jopp: The pandemic is going to force many organizations to do a lot of soul searching about what they could have done better. One issue is creating strategies for managing novel pathogens.
We need to create processes for disaster preparedness using pandemics as a likely scenario. Before, when we talked about disaster preparedness, we talked about earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorism. Pandemics were not a top priority as a likely scenario, and that is certainly going to change.
We have got to improve our infection prevention infrastructure in all aspects of healthcare and outside of healthcare. Again, long-term care facilities were a real miss and more of those facilities need to have infection preventionists on staff. It cost lives to not have more infection preventionists on staff in that setting.
When you look outside of healthcare, infection preventionists are needed in fitness centers, hospitality, and travel such as cruise ships. We need to look at infection prevention in a different light.
HL: What actions would you like to see the new Biden administration take to improve infection prevention?
Jopp: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is crucial. We need to try to ensure that we are providing proper investment into the CDC to be sure that they have the resources to do things such as bolstering our surveillance capability and stockpiling PPE. The National Institutes of Health is another key agency. We need to try to enhance our readiness to conduct research. Providing proper funding to these agencies is a very important step.
Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care editor at HealthLeaders.