Meet Michigan Medicine: Department of Infection Prevention & Epidemiology

September 29, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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Over the past six months, as Michigan Medicine and the rest of the health care community worked to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, a small yet powerful team has emerged as one of the most vital within the organization.

They are tasked with ensuring faculty and staff are provided with the most up-to-date information and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), that they know how to safely put it on and take it off, and that clear protocols for effectively cleaning and disinfecting are disseminated. On top of that, this team works to create contingency plans for contingency plans, as many widely-used items have constrained supply chains.

Indeed, COVID-19 has highlighted these important roles carried out by the Department of Infection Prevention & Epidemiology (IPE), though the team had already been working diligently for nearly two decades to ensure colleagues, patients and visitors are as safe as possible at Michigan Medicine.

“Faculty and staff across the organization have stepped up in incredible ways during COVID-19, and that’s especially true with Infection Prevention & Epidemiology,” said Jeff Desmond, M.D., chief medical officer at Michigan Medicine. “Amanda Valyko, Dr. Laraine Washer, our hospital epidemiologists and the infection prevention staff helped guide our response to the pandemic and were key drivers in our success. Their unique expertise has been and remains invaluable to our COVID-19 response.”

Experts in their field

IPE has about 20 staff members, ranging from project managers to analysts, infection preventionists, hospital epidemiologists and even an environmental health specialist. The infection preventionists have more than 75 years of collective expertise and are a highly-trained group with related experience and, often, master’s degrees and board certification in the field. Many serve on the boards of professional societies and are leads and mentors in the field of infection prevention.

The team serves as consultants on infection prevention and epidemiology, often researching emerging infectious disease issues and the best way to mitigate them.

“We round on units and respond to people’s concerns, provide education, and bring back issues that might need additional attention,” said Valyko, M.P.H., director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Michigan Medicine. “The infection preventionists are an integral part of the team on the units that they cover. They are plugged into to the issues and advocate for solutions that can be implemented and that will provide a safe environment.”

The IPE team also stays on top of ongoing public health concerns and ensures that the most up-to-date information is available to make critical recommendations. And while IPE is always working behind the scenes to minimize the risk of infections, that role has come to the forefront thanks to COVID-19.

“Over the past nine months, this task has taken on added importance as we began seeing the outbreak of the novel coronavirus originally in China and then closer to home,” Valyko said.

Starting in January, IPE issued guidelines regarding travel screening and began looking at PPE options so that the organization was ready to treat its first COVID-19 patients.

Once the pandemic hit Michigan head on, IPE was the front line for fielding questions from employees – up to 400+ in a single day at its peak.

“Had we not been on top of this from an early stage, it would have been more difficult to ensure the safety of our team members and patients,” said Sree Ponnaluri-Wears, infection prevention lead for the organization’s Emerging Infectious Disease group. Ponnaluri-Wears and her team have been a major part of the COVID-19 planning and response work.

Wide-ranging roles

IPE does much more than consult, however. It also runs the organization’s hand hygiene compliance program and gets hands-on with any new piece of equipment the organization would like to purchase.

“We need to make sure the equipment can be cleaned adequately and that we will have the tools to do so in a timely fashion,” said Jeff Chludzinski, the infection preventionist who works with support services. “It’s vital that we stay very involved in product selection, evaluation and processes.”

In much the same way, other team members test disinfectants and sanitizers, ensuring they meet Michigan Medicine and regulatory standards.

Groups also work to limit hospital-acquired conditions such as CAUTIs and CLABSIs; IPs or the environmental health specialist visit every new construction project to make sure control measures are in place to limit the spread of mold and dust; a team tests water in Michigan Medicine facilities for legionella and other harmful substances; and staff members investigate outbreaks of any kind within the hospital or health centers.

“For example, if a unit has an increase in a particular infection, the IPE team performs an epidemiological investigation to try and find out why and see who else may be at risk,” said Jen Sweeney, a project manager who leads this type of work. “It’s very similar to what we’re now performing regarding contact tracing for COVID-19.”

Finally, IPE serves as the liaison between Michigan Medicine and local health departments, sharing data and best practices to help the community stay safe.

Hard work pays off

Many in IPE would say the past nine months have been the most exhausting of their careers – some team members working through the night to protect colleagues.

“While it’s true that this work has been non-stop, IPs have been preparing for this since the early 2000s,” Valyko said. “In that time, we’ve readied the organization for SARS, H1N1, Ebola and more. And while none of those turned into anything like COVID-19, frameworks were already in place for a pandemic.”

And for those following that framework, the sleepless nights and rigorous schedules have been worth it.

“By being there for our colleagues and answering their questions whenever and wherever they may have them, we’re trying to help to reduce anxiety and stress,” Valyko said.

“In the end, we want everyone at Michigan Medicine to know that we will do everything in our power to make this organization as safe as possible to work, study or receive care. That’s our goal and what we set out to achieve every day.”

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