By Dave Moller
To help stop the spread of staph infections, hospitals including Sierra Nevada Memorial are gearing up to adopt stricter cleansing procedures for visitors and patients.
The added precautions - in addition to policies that have been in place for years - come after some well-publicized outbreaks of community-acquired staph infections called "superbugs" that are resistant to most drugs.
A recent American Medical Association report also outlined the dangers of superbugs.
"This is getting to be a bigger issue all the time," said David Witthaus, laboratory manager at SNMH.
Sierra Nevada hospital's parent, Catholic Healthcare Wast, plans to combat staph with stricter cleansing procedures and checks of all Intensive Care Unit patients for the staph bacteria, Witthaus said. He called it a "smart, forward-thinking kind of a move, because it's not going to get any better."
Staph bacteria usually are harmless, and about one-third of all Americans carry it on their nose and skin, according to the Mayo Clinic. But staph can cause mild skin infections in healthy people, who can also spread it even if they don't get sick.
Experts also are worried because the community-acquired staph will cause more problems with people most vulnerable to it, including the young who don't have fully developed immune systems and people whose immunity is damaged, such as HIV patients. These people and others who have wounds or are in health care can develop serious skin infections or pneumonia, which sometimes can be fatal.
Staph infections often start out looking like small red bumps that can appear to be pimples, spider bites or boils, according to the Mayo Clinic. But they can burrow into the body and cause infections in bones, wounds, lungs, the heart valves, joints and the bloodstream.
Concerns also are being expressed about long-term care facilities and hospitals harboring the community-acquired strain and passing it on within and outside of hospitals.
About 94,000 Americans have the community-received staph, the American Medical Association estimated in its recent report. The figure was alarming, because annual deaths tied to superbugs could exceed those from AIDS.
Procedures have been in place for years at Sierra Nevada to stop the spread of hospital-acquired and community-acquired staph infections, according to Allan Finlay, the hospital's infection control practitioner.
When staph does show up, it's most often the community-acquired type, Finlay said. The finding, coupled with national concern about the community-acquired strain, is prompting Catholic Healthcare West to revamp its staph policy.
Starting Nov. 1, a pilot program will begin where all ICU patients will be checked for hospital-acquired and community-acquired staph, Finlay said.
"We'll probably do it throughout the hospital eventually," Finlay said. "This is a complex program, and we want to protect the ICU patients first because they're most at risk."
If a patient is found to have staph, they will be put in strict isolation, Finlay said. The policy already is in place. Now, however, people in contact with them will be issued sanitary gloves and gowns that will be disposed of when they leave the room "so we don't carry the staph to the next person," Finlay said.
The hospital will also do a more thorough job of cleansing rooms that staph-infected patients have occupied, Finlay said. Routine checks will be performed after cleanings to see if they meet muster.
Again, the hospital cleans the rooms thoroughly now, but a lengthy checklist will be introduced "so that we're more disciplined and to not miss anything," Finlay said.
The last part of the new plan is the easiest and perhaps the most important - a stringent hand-cleaning program throughout the hospital.
"We've been doing that for years" with doctors and staff, Finlay said.
Soon, the hospital will include patients and visitors in the hand-washing program, because they could have community-acquired staph, creating a weak link in the prevention chain.
The program will include compliance measurement, "so we'll have the data and statistics to work from" for improvement, Finlay said.
"You see those alcohol wipes and hand sanitizers all over now, just like in the hospital," Finlay said. People should avail themselves in order to protect each other from staff infections and many other bugs, Finlay said.
By Dave Moller