How to avoid COVID-19 infection at work: tips from an infectious disease physician

The physician workforce is one of the most valuable resources of any hospital, and in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to do everything possible to ensure that physicians stay healthy. Like other hospital epidemiologists, I spend a lot of time thinking about practical ways to reduce the risk of infection. So to that end, I want to offer some suggestions for reducing your risk of acquiring COVID-19 at work.

Personal infection prevention. I strongly recommend that everyone in clinical areas follow bare below the elbows. This means that there should be nothing on your forearms, including wrist jewelry and wristwatches. This prevents contamination of sleeves and allows you to perform good hand hygiene. Hospital-laundered scrubs, doffed before going home, is optimal. We want to minimize clothing contamination, so I recommend not wearing white coats, cover jackets, or fleece jackets. Neckties are problematic because they frequently touch the patient/patient surroundings and are rarely cleaned. If you feel the need to wear a necktie, tuck it into your shirt. If you wear a long sleeve shirt, roll up the sleeves. Perform hand hygiene like never before (at least before and after every patient contact), and remember to wipe down your stethoscope after each use. Lastly, avoid touching your face.

Workrooms. Physician workrooms are often small, so we need to think about how to achieve social distancing in these small spaces. One way to do this is to bring your laptop to work and do your documentation on another site to reduce the number of people in the workroom. Also, it’s important to declutter these rooms so that housekeeping can come in to clean all the surfaces. It’s very difficult for them to do this when there is clutter everywhere. You should also wipe down your workspace before you use it. Avoid shared foods in workspaces.

Conservation of personal protective equipment. Supplies of PPE are tight because many of these products are manufactured in China, and factories are closed. This means we really need to conserve these items so that we can safely care for COVID patients for what may be an extended duration. At my hospital, we have modified contact precautions for non-COVID patients to not include gowns, since gowns are particularly in short supply. We continue to wear gloves for patients in contact precautions. If you anticipate a splash or spray, wear a gown for any patient. One way to think about this is to ask yourself: would I rather have this gown to care for a C diff patient today, or this gown to care for a COVID patient six weeks from now? I think this question puts the issue into perspective. Face masks and face shields marketed for medical use are in short supply, so consider purchasing a face shield from a hardware store. Here is an example of one. This particular model completely covers your face even laterally, and I think provides good protection and is comfortable. If you are a physician in an area such as urgent care or the emergency department, where there are many patients with respiratory symptoms, I would consider wearing the shield the entire shift. Avoid touching the shield, and wipe it down after use. To reduce supplies used, reduce the number of persons entering the patient room to the minimum necessary.

Workflow. Again, we need to think about social distancing. In teaching hospitals, we tend to travel in packs, and this needs to stop. Consider asynchronous rounding (attending rounds with each intern separately) to avoid congregating in the hallways on rounds. You might also consider batching your duties to the degree that you can and do more of your documentation at home. Avoid elevators.

What to do if you become ill. The most important thing is to not come to work if you have fever or new-onset respiratory symptoms. If you begin to feel sick at work, remove yourself from patient care as soon as possible. If you don’t have a thermometer (I didn’t have one until a few days ago), please get one, so that you can check your temp at home should you feel febrile. You might also consider purchasing a pulse oximeter to keep at home for self-monitoring in case you become ill.

Please take care of yourself during this difficult time. Patients need us, so let’s do everything we can to stay healthy!

Michael Edmond is an infectious disease physician who blogs at Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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