How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Infection Prevention Workforce?

Public Health

How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Infection Prevention Workforce?

“Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IPC field faced recruitment and retention challenges due to aging of the workforce and an increased need for IPs.”

Few areas in healthcare have been impacted more by the COVID-19 pandemic than infection prevention and control (IPC) professionals.

As the field expands, it simultaneously has dealt with a shortage of qualified infection preventionists (IPs). In turn, IPs have reported experiencing burnout as well as a need for initiatives to improve their well-being.

For this reason, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) and the APIC COVID-19 Task Force recognized the need to evaluate changes in the IPC field. They undertook a project to assess changes since the start of the pandemic, including the extent of pandemic fatigue or burnout, the types of institutional support IPs received to combat it, and challenges experienced in recruiting and retaining qualified IPs.

The American Journal of Infection Control recently shared the findings of the six focus groups researchers conducted.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the IPC field is the extensive need for more IPs across all healthcare settings, yet there are fewer qualified individuals available,” the authors write. “Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IPC field faced recruitment and retention challenges due to aging of the workforce and an increased need for IPs.”

On any given day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 31 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection, exposing patient safety cracks and driving up the cost of care.

In 2020, COVID-19 stamped out years of steady decline in HAIs, spurring significant increases in four of six routinely tracked infections, according to a CDC analysis. One infection-prevention tool to emerge during the pandemic: single-use endoscopes. In June 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for the first time, recommended that healthcare providers consider single-use bronchoscopes when there is increased risk of spreading infection and when treating COVID-19 patients.

A “critical” task force finding was the extent of the burnout experienced by the 90 IPs who took part in the various focus groups, as well as their need for support and resilience training.

“Although IPs are not direct patient care providers, it is essential that they have positive well-being so they may engage in IPC work that optimizes patient and worker safety,” the authors write.

Other key findings:

  • The Delta variant led to IPs being even more involved in creating COVID-19 protocols.
  • It’s unsustainable to transition back to pre-pandemic roles yet continue fulfilling pandemic-created duties.
  • IPs experienced new levels of recognition — from inside of the healthcare industry, the government and the general public, which led to more settings (businesses such as Carnival Cruise Lines or nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders) wanting to hire them and further adding to shortages and difficulty in recruiting and retaining IPs.
  • Well-being programs include insisting IPs take time off, formal and informal counseling and financial incentives.

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