Containing the Novel Coronavirus

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect changing circumstances since the print version went to press in early February. For the latest information on the coronavirus outbreak, visit The Synergist's news page. Resources for industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals are collected in AIHA's Coronavirus Outbreak Resource Center.

The World Health Organization’s declaration in mid-January that the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern” was a sobering reminder of how easily new viral threats can cross the globe. As this issue of The Synergist went to press, the situation was rapidly developing, and much about the virus remained uncertain. It is likely that, by the time you read this, official estimates of the size of the outbreak will have significantly increased from the approximately 25,000 infected as of early February. (Editor's note: WHO reported nearly 91,000 cases worldwide as of March 3.)

Times like these are when industrial hygienists, too often in the background, at least in public perception, move to center stage. As AIHA Government Relations Director Mark Ames explained in a post last month on the SynergistNOW blog, industrial hygienists can contribute in many ways to slowing the spread of the virus. For example, we help select personal protective equipment and train employees on proper donning and doffing techniques. We determine whether the PPE can be reused after proper cleaning, and we train workers on the use of decontamination chemicals and techniques. We help employees, employers, and the public understand the risks. And we manage the work schedules of employees, such as healthcare workers who may be putting in long hours in response to a crisis, so they can avoid becoming fatigued.

Times like these are when industrial hygienists, too often in the background, at least in public perception, move to center stage.
KATHLEEN S. MURPHY, CIH, is AIHA president and director of Global Regulatory Affairs at Sherwin Williams in Cleveland, Ohio.

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ADDRESSING A CRISIS In a crisis such as the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak, AIHA’s primary role as an association is much the same as always: to provide the resources our profession needs to help protect worker health. One relatively new resource that has proven particularly useful during the outbreak is Catalyst, our online community. As of early February, robust discussions were occurring on Catalyst about fit-testing of N95 respirators for healthcare workers and the requirements of OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, among other topics. Members were asking for advice about, for example, the kinds of respiratory protection that employees based in China should wear, and others were sharing resources and providing links to published research. Several of those resources have been collected on the AIHA website, where you’ll find links to CDC’s recommendations for infection prevention and control, as well as some OSHA guidance on respirator use. The page also includes links to relevant publications on the AIHA Marketplace, including The Role of the Industrial Hygienist in a Pandemic and the Incident Safety and Health Management Handbook. For companies and individuals who wish to donate PPE for use by healthcare workers in Wuhan, AIHA’s ambassador to China, Laurence Svirchev, provided instructions and shipping labels. Please read Laurence’s request for donations on AIHA's website (PDF). (Editor's note: As of March 4, concerns about the supply of PPE in China have been alleviated. 3M is coordinating donations for response efforts through Direct Relief.)
A COORDINATED RESPONSE But sharing resources is only part of what we can do. As the virus spreads, a coordinated international response will be necessary to shore up protections in countries with vulnerable healthcare systems and to ultimately contain the disease. AIHA is committed to playing our vital role in this response. We stand ready to work with our partners in government, industry, and the nonprofit sector to implement effective infection control measures. Our members, judging from their volunteer work on behalf of AIHA, have consistently proven to be among the most dedicated and selfless of professionals. That dedication is now in great demand.