What Infection Preventionists Can Expect in 2021

2021 will likely mean a mixture of things for infection preventionists (IPs). First, a focused effort on vaccine education. While this is a larger effort, IPs have always played a significant role in education and answering questions while rounding on the units and clinics.

I’ve tried to mull over what 2020 has been like and what 2021 will likely mean. For most people, and especially those working in healthcare and public health, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has made this one of the longest and most challenging years ever. Some people have said to me: “Pandemics and high-consequence diseases are your specialty. Isn’t this like your Super Bowl?”

In some ways yes—this is a time where years of experience and study get to be utilized, but in a more painful way—no. This is not an exciting time for those of us working in infectious disease. Mostly because we always plan for the worst and hope we never get there. If nothing else, 2020 has taught us a lot about perseverance and building sustainable efforts, both in the healthcare setting but also personally.

The bigger question is though—what will 2021 look like for infection prevention efforts? As vaccine distribution is underway, albeit it slowly, this will be perhaps one of the more challenging times. Healthcare workers are being vaccinated as I type this, but vaccine hesitancy is very real. Moreover, the politicization of public health and challenges with transparency and disinformation have compounded not only the pandemic but the largest vaccine distribution we’ve performed.

2021 will likely mean a mixture of things for infection preventionists (IPs). First, a focused effort on vaccine education. While this is a larger effort, IPs have always played a significant role in education and answering questions while rounding on the units and clinics. Vaccine distribution will involve information for those acquiring it, but it’s also important we continue to address concerns, questions, and reiterate that even with the two doses, staff will still need to follow infection prevention measures at work and at home.

Second, realistic discussions that a vaccine is not a panacea. Elimination of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 is a wonderful goal, but the United States is a large country and vaccine hesitancy is deeply rooted here. Moreover, we are still learning about the efficacy of the vaccines in not only avoidance of severe diseases, but overall infection. Ensuring isolation precautions are adhered to, even if all staff are vaccinated, is critical. Despite having our vaccinations, we still wear personal protective equipment (PPE) into the room of patients with measles, no? Continued vigilance is critical.

Third and perhaps the most important—this will take time and attention. Vaccine distribution will be a long road and not an easy one. Beyond this though, it will take time to realize that COVID-19 could be around longer than we realized and is not the only emerging infectious disease we will encounter. The investment in sustained preparedness for infectious diseases (biopreparedness) takes time and resources.

Even if COVID-19 subsides, maintaining readiness for it will be important. If COVID-19 is truly eliminated, it will need to stay a memory fresh in our minds for just how vulnerable healthcare and public health are to these events, but also that a boom-and-bust approach to response helps no one. 2021 will hopefully mean looking more at healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) and returning to a sense of normality, but it’s important that we don’t return to a pre-COVID “normal” as that’s what got us into much of this mess. Instead of preparing for new threats with old ideas, 2021 I hope will be the year that IPs shine by not only showcasing our skills and dedication, but ability to respond to new challenges with innovative approaches.