The Winter of our Discontent….or Maybe Not! Perspectives of an Infection Preventionist

by Mary Ellen Casey, RN, Infection Preventionist, IPRO QIN-QIO

As a college student I nearly drowned. A lifeguard saved my life. I will never forget being in the water, looking up and seeing a gigantic wave about to swallow me. That’s what COVID-19 felt like in 2020.  And that’s the feeling I have when I see surveillance data with COVID-19 and flu cases rising.

Mary Ellen Casey, RN

I began my Infection Preventionist career right at the start of the H1N1 pandemic. At the time I thought I had a fairly good appreciation for the unpredictable nuances of a novel respiratory virus. I also thought I understood just how prevalent vaccine hesitancy was. I was wrong on both counts.

During the H1N1 pandemic I worked in a women and newborn specialty hospital. H1N1 influenza strongly impacted pregnant women. As a new IP I assumed pregnant women had more robust immune systems. Wrong again. The outcomes for some of those patients who contracted H1N1 will stay with me always.

That year, a second flu vaccine was developed to cover the unexpected strain. People were frightened, anxious, and not sure they wanted the vaccine. Debates raged about mandating the vaccine for healthcare workers. One night I was assisting with that extra flu vaccine clinic when a young, pregnant nurse expressed concern about the effects the vaccine would have on her unborn child. After we spoke, she decided to accept the vaccine. It may be challenging for us as providers to remain open to the right moment to begin those conversations, but they can be so impactful in influencing behavior.

As we near the end of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I often think of where we were in 2020 before the vaccine. I never want to go back. Our vaccines are not perfect, but there is no question that they save lives, as this Commonwealth Fund Study affirms. Vaccines are an integral part of our prevention toolkit, along with hand washing and respiratory etiquette.

Infection prevention has always prided itself on being healthcare’s silent partner. When we do our jobs effectively, people are unaware of the ways in which we have helped them. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that infection prevention is a team sport. We all have an opportunity to make an impact. Let’s band together to share the message that vaccines are as important as other medications. Let’s treat vaccine assessment as a fifth vital sign so we never miss an opportunity to make a difference. Winter is here. COVID-19 and influenza vaccines are like a winter coat. They won’t stop the snow from falling but I’ll take that extra layer of protection anytime!