To say that COVID-19 (the latest official name for the coronavirus) is wreaking havoc all over the world is a huge understatement. The virus, which originated in China, is spreading to countries all over the globe including the United States. Medical professionals are both trying to address those already infected as well as put containment measures in place to avoid further infection.
At least 66,492 people have been infected, with a death toll of 1523 as of February 14, 2020. And the virus has spread to many other countries, including the United States. To date, health officials claim that the recovery rate is rising and that more than 80 percent of the people dying from the coronavirus were over 60 years old, and typically had pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases or diabetes.
Hopefully the virus will be contained at some point, but the question remains of how it got started and what role improper waste management plays in the rapid spread. Although health officials are still tracing the exact source of this new coronavirus, early theories link it to a seafood market in Wuhan, China. Some people who visited the market developed viral pneumonia caused by COVID-19. As the virus spreads, more theories of origin are emerging but the scientific community is urging caution as they continue to work to fully understand the virus.
Renewed Emphasis on RMW
Regulated medical waste (RMW), also known as ‘biohazardous’ waste or 'infectious medical’ waste, is the portion of the waste stream that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials, thus posing a significant risk of transmitting infection.
There are several key categories of waste that are typically classified as ‘regulated.' Each category typically has special handling requirements that may be state-specific. See the Types of Regulated Medical Waste page for more information on the classification of RMW.
Most state laws require RMW to be rendered non-infectious before it can be disposed of as solid waste. (See the RMW Treatment and Disposal page for more information.)
RMW is unique to the healthcare sector and presents a number of compliance challenges. Unlike many regulations that apply to healthcare, most regulations governing medical waste are defined at a state, rather than a federal level. Adding yet a further level of complexity, authority for medical waste rules often comes from multiple agencies at the state level.
Federal law does not provide an explicit definition of medical waste. Typically, State Departments of Health issue the regulations that determine which wastes are considered ‘regulated’ or require special handling. Use the RMW State Locator to find the definitions that apply in your state.
Of course, it is not always clear how overall rules will apply to a specific situation. The RMW State Locator provides contact information for individuals in state agencies who may help resolve questions of interpretation.
OSHA Guidelines and COVID-19
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidelines to those working in the healthcare waste management field as follows:
Workers and employers should manage waste contaminated with COVID-19 as they would other regulated medical waste. (COVID-19 is not a Category A infectious substance.)
Use appropriate engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE, such as puncture-resistant gloves and face/eye protection, to prevent worker exposure to medical waste, including sharps and other items that can cause injuries or exposures to infectious materials.
OSHA has provided interim guidance for U.S. workers and employers of workers with potential occupational exposures to COVID-19. According to OSHA, "Management of waste that is suspected or known to contain or be contaminated with COVID-19 does not require special precautions beyond those already used to protect workers from the hazards they encounter during their routine job tasks in solid waste and wastewater management."
OSHA instruction: "Workers and employers should manage solid waste contaminated with COVID-19 as they would other regulated medical waste. (COVID-19 is not a Category A infectious substance.)
Use typical engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE, such as puncture-resistant gloves and face/eye protection, to prevent worker exposure to medical waste, including sharps and other items that can cause injuries or exposures to infectious materials."
For additional information, consult the regulated medical waste information in CDC’s guidelines for environmental infection control in healthcare facilities.
Managing through the COVID-19 epidemic should make all of us look at our own disease prevention tasks in order to stay healthy. But it is the healthcare organizations where the risk is greater for disease and death, and the proper disposal of healthcare waste can make all the difference when containment issues are paramount.