Viewpoint: Omicron Surges Because Prevention Practices Drifted

As infection preventionists, we need to request that hospitals dust off the practices that were implemented during 2020. We need to reiterate that vaccination does not prevent infections, only severe illness.

The strain that the Omicron surge currently places on hospitals is a similar in intensity to the strain the original COVID-19 caused. However, unlike the original COVID-19, Omicron problems are due to behaviors. Initially, hospitals scrambled to understand how the disease was transmitted and implemented infection prevention and control practices. As we initiated requiring staff to protect themselves with the vaccination, those prevention practices were relaxed.

Hospitals opened doors that were closed to traffic during the original COVID-19, allowed staff meetings without masks among those that were vaccinated, and extended visiting hours for family/friends. Staff that were assigned to those patients that were identified as having COVID-19 were required to still practice the prevention of transmission. Although there were still hospital mandates concerning masking and vaccinations, staff and visitors became relaxed regarding how COVID-19 is transmitted.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported since 2020 that COVID-19 is transmitted by droplet. It recommends the rectangular surgical mask in clinical settings and cloth face coverings for the general population. Due to those patients in the hospital presenting with severe respiratory illness, N95s have been strongly recommended, because these patients may require aerosol generating procedures.

As infection preventionists, we need to request that hospitals dust off the practices that were implemented during 2020. We need to reiterate that vaccination does not prevent infections, only severe illness. We need to re-educate staff about how to break the cycle of transmission: hand hygiene, clean environment, masking, and social distancing (of at least 6 feet).

Now that we have a better understanding of what illness we are encountering, including the chances of transmission, even though the strain is different, the transmission has not changed. Just as we in the hospital setting relaxed, the general public did also. This relaxation has caused a surge in the hospital encounters and admissions.

Infection preventionists will continue to remind staff, as we have with all infections, about the practices that are necessary to prevent transmission. These practices are not only for transmission for patient to patient, but also for safety of the staff.

La’Titia Houston MPH, BSN, RN, MT(AAB), CBSPD, CIC, is a member of Infection Control Today®’s Editorial Advisory Board.