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Guest column – Train now for proper Ebola PPE

The following is a guest blog by Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, a Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multi-hospital system in the Tidewater region of Virginia.

Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (VHF) or Ebola is the hot topic right now in healthcare facilities and in laboratories across the nation. Under normal circumstances, the proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can be confusing to staff. With adjustments that need to be made for handling and processing samples from suspected or confirmed VHF patients, that confusion can mount.

A look at OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens and Chemical Hygiene Standards will make clear the requirements for proper PPE selection and use under usual circumstances in the clinical laboratory setting. Fluid-resistant lab coats, gloves and face protection are all part of the everyday PPE required. While the CDC has been very specific about PPE use when involved with direct care of VHF patients, the guidance has been less exact for laboratorians and specimen processing. The point that is often stressed is that Standard Precautions, those precautions that we should always be utilizing in the lab, are sufficient for protection against the Ebola virus.

Much information has been distributed about how lab testing was handled for the two Ebola patients at Emory University, but in those cases, only Point of Care Testing was performed near the patient rooms, and no testing ever made it to the actual laboratories in the facility. Some specific recommendations for handling the highly pathogenic samples include:

–         Utilizing a gown rather than a lab coat to completely cover the front of the employee

–         Double-gloving

–         Full face protection to include goggles and a respirator or a full-face shield

When making decisions about the PPE for your staff, gather information from the CDC, your infection prevention department and other credible resources that you may have. Train your staff how to properly don and doff the PPE, especially if you obtain equipment you do not use under normal circumstances.

I heard someone say that because of Ebola that lab staff really needs to “buckle down and use PPE to keep themselves safe.” That should happen all of the time, not just now. Laboratorians never know what pathogens they may be handling with the specimens they process and test. That’s one reason Standard Precautions was introduced. Keep your lab staff safe now and always by properly using PPE that always offers the protection needed in the laboratory.