March 8, 2021

Infection Prevention team likens pandemic to an ultramarathon

“We always say that infection prevention is everyone’s business, and the pandemic reflects that.”

VUMC Infection Prevention Team poses for a photo at 2135 Blakemore Ave Wednesday, February 3, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

In January 2020, two months before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Tennessee, Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Infection Prevention team was already scrutinizing emerging data about the novel coronavirus. As epidemiologists confirmed the virus could be transmitted by individuals with no symptoms and that the situation had high potential to become a pandemic, the team kicked into overdrive.

“This has been an ultramarathon, where you run through Death Valley and try not to get eaten by cougars or bitten by snakes,” said Chief Hospital Epidemiologist Tom Talbot, MD, MPH. “We’d been preparing for a pandemic for quite a while, and many of the basic infection prevention principles we need to use daily have definitely come to the forefront.”

The Department of Infection Prevention has been working in partnership with teams throughout the Medical Center to protect both patients and clinicians to reduce the transmission risk of COVID-19. Infection Prevention is on call 24/7, and early in the pandemic, they often received 40 or more beeper pages through the night from front-line providers. At the same time, the team still had other mission-critical quality and safety initiatives to direct.

“It has been important to keep our focus on our other quality initiatives; we can’t lose sight of ensuring our patients don’t develop an infection related to a central line or a urinary catheter while in the hospital,” said Mary DeVault, MSN, RN, manager of the Department of Infection Prevention. “So, there’s been the challenge of just dealing with this pandemic while also keeping our eye on the other really, really important infection prevention practices that we have to do to keep our patients safe.”

Because of the Infection Prevention team’s unflagging efforts, the group was presented the Elevate Team Award at the February 2021 Virtual Leadership Assembly.

The team is on call to respond to infection prevention questions and concerns for all patients and their care teams across VUMC, including at Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. With the January addition of Tennova Healthcare-Shelbyville and Tennova Healthcare-Harton hospitals and the minority ownership in Tennova Healthcare-Clarksville hospital, members of the team also now work closely with infection prevention leaders at those sites.

“I would like to salute this team for its promptness to the needs of our patients and clinical teams, amazing patience under duress, creativity and can-do attitude,” noted Shubhada Jagasia, MD, MMHC, chief of staff, Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital and Clinics. “They have been a reliable resource in the midst of changing guidelines which can foster confusion.”

Those at the core of the Infection Prevention group include:

  • Four physician epidemiologists trained in infectious diseases who provide content expertise
  • 10 infection preventionists – health care professionals who provide infection prevention guidance for all inpatient areas and clinics. One infection preventionist is dedicated to high level disinfection and sterilization practices, and another is focused on outpatient care.
  • A program coordinator who oversees the successful VUMC hand hygiene campaign
  • Liaisons who work with infection prevention specialists at partner hospitals
  • Two dedicated data analysts

“This is a huge honor, and I’m so proud of the team,” said Talbot. “We always say that infection prevention is everyone’s business, and the pandemic reflects that. We’re certainly part of the successes that have been seen, but everybody who handles patients and interacts with each other are part of this, and they are why we’ve been so successful. We can tell you to wash your hands, but if people don’t do it, it doesn’t really work. I’m just so thankful for the Infection Prevention team, and thankful to everybody for just really owning infection prevention.

“The thing I’m most proud of, for our team especially, but really for the whole institution, is how many people in this time of uncertainty and anxiety have stepped up and worked together,” Talbot said. “Whether it’s developing the units to care for patients, setting up a pre-surgery testing process, vaccinating staff, or giving patients the right treatment, we have such good people who just came together from all over the institution and figured it out.”

If you are a VUMC employee, you can nominate a colleague for an Elevate Credo Award, Five Pillar Leader Award, or Team Award. Visit the Elevate website to fill out a nomination form. Employees demonstrate credo behaviors when: they make those they serve the highest priority; respect privacy and confidentiality; communicate effectively; conduct themselves professionally; have a sense of ownership; and are committed to their colleagues. Elevate award nominations are accepted year-round. If a nomination is received after the cut off for an award selection period, the nomination will be considered for the next period. VUMC Voice will post stories on each of the award winners in the weeks following their announcement.