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Fear and Cleaning: Dealing with the Emotional and Practical Impact of the Pandemic of 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak and the impact it has had in the United States will be studied and discussed by epidemiologists, economists, and laymen for many years to come. No matter the ultimate infection rate, the ripple effects of this pandemic will be felt far and wide in nearly every aspect of life. That is true inside our sterile processing departments as well. Leaders and co-workers alike should be prepared to deal with the emotional and practical impact of the current challenges facing our teams.

Balancing healthcare and self-care
As always, but especially in times of crisis, our teams must be reminded that self-care is the foundation of healthcare. Although our sterile processing technicians are labeled as “essential” employees under most, if not all, current government guidance, we are only as strong as our weakest link. Leaders should regularly encourage their team members to be wise in how they maintain their own infection prevention protocols once they leave the hospital campus and return home to their loved ones. It will serve no one to bring infection into a hospital that is trying to control and prevent it. Likewise, the last thing that we want our sterile processing departments to turn into is a source of transmission back into the community that we are called to serve. 

Technicians and leaders who are sick or showing other signs of potential infection should follow recommended government guidance to stay home and self-isolate, and feel confident that their jobs will not be put at risk if they do so.

Job security in the midst of crisis
While state and federal officials are enacting numerous protections for employees and their loved ones who are impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, the long-term impact for the healthcare industry in general is largely unknown. With near universal cancellation of elective surgeries sweeping the nation, instrument reprocessing volume cannot help but decline in the short term. Practically speaking, this means that PRN technicians, part timers, and even many full time sterile processing professionals may have their hours reduced or be taken off the schedule until surgical volume returns. The specifics of these decisions will vary, depending on facility size, cross-training of SPD staff, and internal HR policies, but we should not assume that because our roles are “essential” that our hours are guaranteed. 

As hospitals begin to feel the true impact of losing all their elective surgical revenue for weeks, if not months, staffing reductions will be one of the things at the top of an administrator’s list. While no one in sterile processing should panic, we should also consider the realities of the situation and proactively pursue potential side-hustles, part-time jobs, and other opportunities necessary to help our families weather the storm. Surgeries aren’t going anywhere permanently, but they may not be back in force for a few months or more. 

The emotion of a crisis 
There is no such thing as a proper response to a crisis. Human beings are wired differently and respond to different situations in strikingly different ways. Our sterile processing teammates may be going through any number of emotional ups and downs during this pandemic. Some may be concerned about their aged parents or grandparents. Others may be anxious about being employed in a profession that pulls them into the eye of the contagious storm, rather than allowing them to safely work from home like millions of others around the country. Some may be overwhelmed with the pressures of childcare and business closures during this time. 

Whatever the cause, department leaders and co-workers must be cognizant of the need to meet our co-workers where they are emotionally. We cannot expect or demand specific responses or attitudes in times of such upheaval and national crisis. We do not need to pretend to be psychiatrists or spiritual leaders, but we can intentionally be kind, patient, and understanding as individuals around us experience this pandemic in their own way. While at work, our priorities are always the patient. But frontline staff must be in a safe emotional state in order to garner the focus and precision that our patients deserve. If emotions are too overwhelming, that’s not a fault, but it is something that must be addressed for the good of all parties involved.

On from here
Anyone who tells you they know what next week or next month is going to look like for healthcare in general, or sterile processing in particular, is either lying to you or blissfully deceived. There are too many moving parts, too little data points, and too much media noise to really get a pulse on the final direction of all this. But what we do know, and what we must take with us as we move on from here into the unknown future is this: 

The human spirit is strong, the mission of sterile processing is noble, and someone will need a safe surgery tomorrow. Amidst the fear and disruption, these are the kinds of truths that we should be keeping front and center. 

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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