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By Gary Evans, Medical Writer
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been the biggest challenge in the history of modern infection prevention, but it has also raised the profile and importance of infection preventionists (IPs) in a way that should secure future program resources, says Ann Marie Pettis, RN, BSN, CIC, FAPIC, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).
“None of us have experienced anything like this,” says Pettis, director of infection prevention at University of Rochester (NY) Medicine. “My grandmother used to talk about the Spanish flu and how [childhood] friends of hers died in the middle of the night. This pandemic is as [challenging] as it has ever been for me and our field in healthcare. You know, all these years I’ve been saying to groups, it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we will have a pandemic. We are in the ‘when’ now.”
With more than 500,000 dead of COVID-19 in the United States, the pandemic has raised awareness of the bitter toll infectious diseases can take, and importantly, why investing in public health and infection prevention is critical to close the glaring gaps that have been exposed.
“For many years, our tagline has been infection prevention is everyone’s business,” says Pettis, who has been an IP for more than 30 years. “Leadership gave it lip service but I’m not sure they took it as seriously as we would have liked. I think the pandemic has shone a light on infection prevention and really made them realize the value we bring to the table. The money that they put into supporting an infection control program is well worth it and really has an unbelievable value.”
As bad as the pandemic has been, it could have been worse. For example, for all the legitimate concern expressed about the emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, other viruses like influenza and HIV are much more mutable than the pandemic coronavirus.
While emphasizing she is not downplaying the pandemic, Pettis says from an infection control standpoint a pathogen that was harder to kill in the environment would raise the stakes considerably.
“[SARS-CoV-2] is incredibly easy to kill in the environment — you look at it and it dies,” she says. “In terms of the germ causing it, it could have been a whole lot worse. Let’s hope this is not a dress rehearsal for an even worse pandemic.”
There remain concerns, for example, that some version of avian influenza will jump to humans, triggering the recurrent scenario where a zoonotic pathogen mutates and begins transmitting in a population with no existing immunity.
“It could be an avian flu that has a high mortality rate,” Pettis says. “Or it could be ‘organism x’ that we can’t even imagine. It’s so important as we move through this and see the light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic, that we strategize how to close the gaps that have been identified. That is really imperative.”