A critical part of wearing personal protective equipment is taking the time to properly put on and take off potentially contaminated gowns, gloves and other items to prevent infecting the wearer.
But who ensures this is done properly? At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsibility fell to more than 3,000 employees across the Johns Hopkins Health System who took on new continued from roles as safety officers.
At The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Jackie McCready, program director of education, was tapped to help. In just weeks, her team of nurse educators trained nearly 2,000 safety officers, whose non-COVID-19 roles ranged from nurses and medical assistants to environmental care services and security.
Once trained, safety officers deployed to biomode units, emergency departments and other areas that required the highest level of infection prevention. Safety officers educated staff who were new to the rigorous demands of COVID-19, calmed fears and encouraged them to adopt new habits.
‘A Charge Nurse for the Whole Hospital’
At the peak of the pandemic, The Johns Hopkins Hospital staffed 30 safety officers on every 12-hour shift. An additional layer of support came in the form of a safety officer coordinator, a position likened to a charge nurse for the whole hospital.
Specialty nurse Alyssa Noonan filled this new role with gusto after being redeployed from the electrophysiology lab. As the go-to person, she would share her ASCOM phone number and say, “You can call me and I’ll find the answer for you.” A major component of the coordinator role involved rounding on every safety officer several times throughout a shift to answer questions and provide support.
Safety officer coordinators also oversaw runners — staff members who would run samples from the units and the emergency department to the lab for COVID-19 testing. Runners could also pick up and deliver supplies or blood products to the units, allowing staff members in full PPE to focus on patient care and preserving our PPE supply.
As the program evolved, the safety officer role expanded beyond being an infection prevention watchdog. They assisted with transporting patients when a transport staff member was not available, and often identified when supplies on the unit were running low.
“It’s a more valuable role than people may recognize when they just hear about it,” says Kerri Huber, director of patient safety at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Unless they’ve lived it or worked really closely with it, they may not realize its impact.”
As hospitals started ramping back up to normal, resuming elective cases and reopening ambulatory clinics, most safety officers across the health system transitioned back to their “home” units and resumed their regular, pre-COVID-19 duties.
Although Johns Hopkins has always cared for patients on isolation precautions, nurse educator Julie Seiler says the program’s reach could last beyond the pandemic. “This may raise awareness for the importance of following isolation precautions, or the need for a unique technique or an on-call person. It’s been great to work everything out with Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Control. They are the ones who were doing this until they could no longer meet the demand. They have done this as their life’s work.”