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Infection preventionists take the stage in COVID era

Mubarak Tukur, Don Rock and Sheri Tolley
Mubarak Tukur, Don Rock and Sheri Tolley from the IP team that oversees Magic Valley, Wood River and Jerome.
By Dave Southorn, News and Community
October 20, 2020

Sheri Tolley’s infection prevention team at St. Luke’s has a monthly on-call schedule – emergencies have thankfully not been common in the past, so she didn’t expect anything too unusual when March came.

But the entire world changed – putting Tolley’s job in the forefront.

An infection preventionist that oversees St. Luke’s Magic Valley, Wood River and Jerome, Tolley wound up working 18 days straight, “24/7,” as she says, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Idaho.

“It’s something we prepared for, but also at the same time, you hope never happens,” Tolley said. “I learned more in those first few weeks than I would have in years.”

If you’ve ever been in a hospital or clinical environment, the signs are literally everywhere, reminding you to wash your hands.

That was always the work of infection prevention; now, it’s part of a mantra meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the three Ws – wash your hands, wear a face covering and watch your physical distance.

Meagan Prescott
Meagan Prescott, an infection preventionist at the Meridian hospital, dressed for a training session to handle Ebola and other highly contagious organisms.

“We’re having another surge in the Magic Valley, we want staff to keep up best practices, and of course in the community,” Tolley said. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Tolley said she barely slept in the early days of the pandemic, as so much was unknown about the coronavirus. Within the first week of patients being admitted in Wood River, the first area to be hit hard, 44 staff members were out sick or quarantined.

But collaboration between hospitals, isolating COVID-positive patients and being strict with protocols has worked to prevent cases of hospital-onset COVID-19 in her area, Tolley said.

The team also serves as the liaison between the local health district and the hospitals.

“We usually are behind the scenes, but got thrust into the limelight,” said Aimee Russell, who oversees Boise, Elmore County, McCall and St. Luke’s rehabilitation services with her team. “What we do touches just about every area of the hospital, so it’s of such big importance for us to keep staff, patients, visitors, everyone safe.”

Russell’s background is in microbiology, and infection prevention has been an ideal fit. She often likes to educate staff or inquisitive people about its importance – she’s been known to swab an employee’s ID badge and show that it’s got a lot of unpleasant things on it you cannot see with the naked eye.

“It occasionally involves grossing people out, and I’m OK with that, because it tends to get the point across,” Russell said.

Preventing cross-contamination so that patients, already facing challenges to their systems, don’t become more ill is a major goal. Even paying attention to something seemingly minute, like how long a door is open, is scrutinized.

A recent success involved pediatric central line-associated bloodstream infection (CLABSI). According to the CDC, CLABSI incidents involving IVs and catheters cause thousands of deaths each year and billions of dollars in added costs within health care in the United States.

The team helped prevent any cases of pediatric CLABSI in Boise for nearly 11 months after getting provider input and recommended safeguards.

Pandemic or no pandemic, keeping everything clean and safe is as important as ever.

“It’s truly a team effort,” Russell said.

Added Tolley, “When you work with a team to fix and issue that may put patients at risk, and you see the results of those changes, that is really awarding.”

About The Author

Dave Southorn works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.