With news of the influenza A (H1N1) infection, AKA “swine flu,” spreading faster than the illness itself, it might be easy to overlook how prepared for pandemic flu the laundry industry might be. After a public scare over the avian flu, many hospitals and other healthcare facilities are better equipped for such an outbreak than public perception might indicate.
Although Dr. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general, has raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5, asserting that all countries should activate their pandemic preparedness plans, she also commends those countries on their level of preparedness.
“Preparedness measures undertaken because of the threat from H5N1 avian influenza were an investment, and we are now benefiting from this investment,” Chan says in a statement on the WHO website.
So, what measures should someone in the laundry industry take to prevent the spread of swine flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), routine cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as the management of laundry, utensils, and medical waste, used during flu seasons can be applied to the management of swine flu.
Recommendations for laundry and bedding in healthcare laundries include maintaining the receiving area for contaminated textiles at a negative pressure compared to clean areas of the laundry; ensuring that laundry areas have handwashing facilities and products, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE); and not leaving damp textiles or fabrics in machines overnight.
Workers handling contaminated textiles and fabrics should do so with minimal agitation to avoid contamination, CDC says. Contaminated textiles and fabrics should be bagged or otherwise contained at the point of use, and shouldn’t be sorted or prerinsed in patient-care areas. Leak-resistant containment should be used for textiles and fabrics contaminated with blood or bodily substances, and the bags or containers should be properly labeled or identified.
If hot-water laundry cycles are used, CDC recommends detergent, a water temperature of at least 160ºF and a cycle time of at least 25 minutes.
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) is urging public health officials to look to infection preventionists to help stop the potential spread of swine flu.
“Infection preventionists are experts at preventing the transmission of infections and work with their local public health authorities as a normal part of their daily routine,” says Christine J. Nutty, RN, MSN, CIC, president of APIC. “Long-term care facilities, home-care providers and others who may not be as well-prepared as hospitals will also need the guidance and support that APIC members can provide.
“The increasing threat of swine flu raises the need to disseminate education surrounding prevention and viral transmission. Now is the time for increased awareness about good health practices that make sense for everyone.”
The No. 1 way to prevent infection, swine flu or otherwise, is through frequent handwashing with soap and water for 20-30 seconds, APIC says. If soap and water aren’t available, an antiseptic hand cleaner that contains at least 60% alcohol is an acceptable substitute.
The American Society for Healthcare Environmental Services (ASHES) recommends the reading of the CDC guidelines, and asks organizations to discuss the issues and brief front-line employees to reinforce understanding of transmission modes and self-protection. These discussions should stress strict adherence to posted isolation protocols and frequent hand hygiene, as well as the importance of self-monitoring and reporting violations of the protocols, ASHES says.
Organizations should make sure that front-line workers can demonstrate an understanding of the differences between standard and transmission-based precautions, and the correct way to don and remove PPE, ASHES says. They should also reinforce the importance of proper cleaning techniques.
Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic
American Laundry News columnist Eric Frederick has written columns on a laundry’s response to pandemic flu. For factors to consider when putting a pandemic flu plan together, click here. For a more detailed look at building a specific plan, click here.
For individuals, nearly every healthcare organization recommends covering your nose and mouth when sneezing; washing your hands thoroughly; avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth; avoiding contact with sick people; and staying home when you are sick as ways to help stop the spread of germs.