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Biosafety at the Core of Public Health Practices


By Rachel Gamble, DrPH, CBSP
Life Sciences

What do you think of this time of year? Maybe you think of fall leaves, hot cocoa, pumpkin spice-palooza, scary movies, mini Snickers, and all things cozy; however, the Life Sciences Division of Merrick thinks about Biosafety and Biosecurity month! This year marks the 7th annual “Biosafety and Biosecurity Month” sponsored by the American Biological Safety Association-International (ABSA International). This year’s theme is “The Role of Biosafety and Biosecurity in Mitigating Emerging Risk,” which is timely considering what an eventful year this has been in infectious disease, biosafety, and biosecurity.

COVID-19 has drastically altered the landscape of everyone’s day-to-day lives and has called us all to consider the potential long-range ramifications of our individual actions and choices. Mitigating risk is a team sport, and we all must work together to reach the goal line. Biosafety professionals in Merrick’s LS Unit are continuing to help individuals all over the globe mitigate risk and would like to offer some food for thought on integrating biosafety practices into your regular routine.

Biosafety is most often associated with “science-y” stuff, but there are a few easy biosafety practices you can incorporate into your daily life that will help protect not only you and yours but also those around you.

Tip 1: Face Masks are More than Just PPE

Face masks have become a new daily accessory in our lives, and while the concept is simple, those not used to wearing masks may be unfamiliar with proper use or may relax practices over time. This is the same phenomenon that happens in laboratories without continuous emphasis and training. After someone becomes comfortable with ongoing practices and procedures, they tend to skip steps and relax vigilance. As a team, we cannot give up when there is still a goal to reach, and we haven’t crossed into the endzone yet. Wearing a mask in the lab protects you and your experiment: wearing a mask in public protects you and those around you.

It is important to remember the following things when it comes to using masks:

  • Treat your mask like a biohazard. Just as you would not put your dirty shoes on the kitchen countertop, you should not put your used face mask on surfaces where you eat or prepare food. No one wants Coronavirus carbonara for dinner. Attaching lanyards to face coverings is one mitigation strategy that can be employed to ensure they are not left lying around.
  • Wash your hands. Anytime you touch your face mask, you potentially contaminate your hands, so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. No one appreciates a sticky-fingered child touching everything, and no one will appreciate your mask -adjusting hands touching the last bottle of cabernet sauvignon at the grocery store either. Keep hand sanitizers accessible to decrease the burden on searching for them when you are out and about.
  • Change or wash your mask. Despite some teenagers’ affinity for wearing the same shirt multiple times without washing it, those same practices are not recommended for your face covering. No one likes doing laundry, but it beats getting or spreading COVID-19 any day. If your face mask is disposable and looks like a broken flip flop hanging on by one side, it is time for a new one. There are no awards for how many days you can wear the same mask–disposable or reusable. It is best practice to wear a clean face mask each day, and if you are getting mask acne, change your mask more frequently. Reusable masks should be washed regularly using your standard washer and dryer and the warmest possible setting for the material. Also remember not to treat face masks the same as you would your kid’s Halloween candy haul–do not hoard the best of the bunch for yourself. N-95 respirators should be reserved for our healthcare workers.

Tip 2: Decontamination and Disinfection Are Everyone’s Job

Decontamination and disinfection are not just for laboratories; it is also applicable to your work and home environments. Cleaning and disinfecting the surfaces you and others regularly touch will decrease the number of bacteria and viruses hanging out on inanimate objects that can hitch a ride on your hands to a mucus membrane (i.e., eyes, nose, or mouth), possibly resulting in an exposure. Per CDC recommendations, clean surfaces with soap and water followed by an EPA-registered household disinfectant. There are a number of disinfectants that meet EPA’s criteria for use against COVID-19. High-touch surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, desks, phones, keyboards, and sink paddles are areas to concentrate your efforts.

It is also important to handle and dispose of your own personal protective equipment (PPE). Anyone who has had the pleasure of working in a lab will know that there’s always someone who leaves their stuff and used PPE lying around for others to contend with. While PPE plays an integral safety role in the lab—and in our daily lives—leaving used, potentially contaminated PPE around for others to pick up and discard is a safety concern. Be mindful of PPE items you have used and ensure they make it to their final destination–the trash can.

Tip 3: Isolate to Protect Others

Just as a good biosafety professional would recommend working with infectious substances in a biosafety cabinet (BSC) to ensure it is isolated and contained to prevent inadvertent contamination, we would also recommend isolating and containing yourself to prevent the inadvertent spread of COVID-19 should you or a loved one be diagnosed. Try to look at the positives: you are keeping others safe by isolating, you’re allowing yourself space and time to recover, and you can eat breakfast in bed versus going to the kitchen so pretend you are at a 5-star bed and breakfast. Keep in mind that just because you are feeling better does not mean that you are ready to venture back into society, so be mindful of CDC’s current guidance.

Tip 4: Best Practices Can be Lost in Translation

While everyone’s first instinct is to consult government and agency leadership and follow recommended best practices regarding COVID-19, it’s easy to find yourself in a “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario. For instance, gloves are recommended to be worn when caring for someone who is sick. The idea is that the gloves protect your hands from contamination; however, if while wearing those gloves you touch items around someone that is sick then touch your phone, face, jewelry, glasses, etc. you are potentially transferring contaminants to items that you will later touch with your bare hands. While wearing gloves is intended to protect you in this scenario, they have not served their intended purpose.

Taking guidance and translating it into practice is a key component of safety in the lab, in our daily lives as individuals, and outside the laboratory in other public areas. The goal is to develop practices and procedures that are safe and feasible. Biosafety and public health professionals are available at Merrick to help you bridge the gap between written guidance and putting that guidance into daily practice for your laboratory or workplace.

All lightheartedness aside, the above biosafety tips are intended to help you and those around you stay healthy, as well as to contribute to the overall goal of helping address the ongoing spread of COVID-19 as opposed to carrying on with practices that contribute to the continued spread of the virus. While we constantly adapt and navigate new daily routines, we can all take heart in knowing that each of us is doing our part to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 as a team.

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