Strategies to prevent spread of COVID-19 and protect frontline workers were front and center during the 2020 Worker Training Program (WTP) virtual workshop(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/events.cfm?id=2588) March 17. Federal agency representatives, infectious disease experts, and health and safety professionals shared timely information.
The workshop was originally scheduled to take place in Atlanta. WTP Director Joseph (“Chip”) Hughes said that after consultation with the Emory Woodruff Health Sciences Center and broadly considering the risks and impacts of a face-to-face meeting during the pandemic response, organizers pivoted in just a few short days to host a virtual forum instead.
SARS-CoV-2, a novel pathogen
WTP has a long history of training and preparing workers who face potential exposure to hazardous pathogens, such as swine flu and Ebola. WTP’s national network of trainers and experts will prove critical in protecting first responders and other front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workshop speakers discussed transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as worker protections, and federal, state, and local training efforts.
“We are constantly learning more about COVID-19,” said Richard Hunt, M.D., from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness. “We must be flexible and willing to adapt our training, because what you trained for last time might not work this time.”
Alexander Isakov, M.D., lead researcher for WTP grantee Emory University, underscored the need for agile preparedness and response with this novel pathogen. He described the National Biodefense Strategy as a framework with goals that correspond to WTP objectives to protect the workforce and support local communities.
Training, preparedness, response
WTP grantees supported by the Ebola Biosafety and Infectious Disease Response Training Program shared how they apply lessons from past experiences to adapt training for emergency responders and environmental service workers. The program was funded through a $10 million transfer to WTP via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using Ebola emergency supplemental appropriations. (View the slideshow below for photos from past trainings.)
Keynote speaker Lisa Brosseau, Sc.D., retired professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, discussed the likelihood of close-range aerosol exposure to SARS-CoV-2, inherent risks for workers, and necessary protocols for protection. “Analyze control methods across all levels,” she said. “We can’t change the toxicity of the organism, so we have to decrease exposure. Workers that face the highest risk need the highest levels of protection.” Kevin Riley, Ph.D., from WTP grantee the Western Region Universities Consortium, described the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration Aerosol Transmissible Diseases Standard. He explained how it relates to novel pathogens like SARS-COV-2 and can be used to protect workers in high-risk settings.
A key challenge is the shortage of respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care, law enforcement, and transportation workers. Capt. Lisa Delaney, associate director for emergency preparedness and response at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said her agency is partnering with other agencies to address ways to optimize PPE supplies in the face of shortages. NIOSH is also developing guidance, fact sheets, and communication materials for workplaces.
Selin Hobby, from Stericycle, and Chris Brown, from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, took up the other end of the pipeline — management of biohazard waste. They highlighted open communication, accessible resources, and implementation of company protocols as tools to support proper waste management.
Managing perceptions and stress present additional challenges. “Because we are compulsively drawn to the latest information about COVID-19, incorporating free time away from news and media is key to managing stress,” said Gordon Tuttle, Ph.D., from Emory University. He emphasized the importance of self-care and social connections to alleviate stress for workers and the public.
“We know this will be a long-term process,” said Hughes. “Training for front-line workers will continue to be our priority and focus.” In addition to ongoing coordination with federal partners, WTP is working with private sector partners to launch an online training and learning platform for COVID-19.
WTP will continue close coordination with partners, Hughes added, to ensure that activities funded by the 2020 Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act are complementary and support the highest priority of response to protect COVID-19 frontline workers.
(Kenda Freeman is a research and communication specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)