It’s been more than two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Today, healthcare organizations around the world continue to face critical challenges from over-capacity due to the ongoing healthcare staffing crisis. Stericycle continues to partner with hospitals, clinics, and facilities through these challenges to help them manage COVID-19-related medical waste.
What Are the Risks Associated with Improper COVID-19 Waste Management?
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that medical waste from healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients is no different than waste coming from facilities without COVID-19 patients, and therefore “management of … medical waste should be performed in accordance with routine procedures.”
Like any biohazardous waste, COVID-19-related medical waste can cause injury and infection when handled incorrectly. Some of the potential risks associated with improper medical waste disposal include:
- Exposure to healthcare workers and patients
- Exposure to non-workers and non-patients, or the public generally
- Potential for exposure due to cross-contamination
- Potential for the waste to be disposed of contrary to regulatory requirements
Moreover, the Stericycle Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report found that poor medical waste management can affect mental health as well as physical health: 82% of the healthcare providers surveyed agree that improperly managed medical waste negatively impacts their emotional well-being.
How to Manage and Dispose of COVID-19-Related Medical Waste
- Practice Proper Medical Waste Management: Regulations governing medical waste management differ from state to state, but generally require the following:
• Place regulated medical waste (except sharps waste) into a red bag and tie off the bag.
• Place tied bag into a regulated medical waste box/container.
• Close and seal the medical waste box/container.
• Place sharps waste in a sharps container, rather than in a red bag.
• Send packaged waste to an appropriate treatment facility.
In addition to reviewing state regulations, healthcare organizations and other medical waste generators should also review any guidance from their states regarding COVID-19 waste management. As of June 2021, there were about 20 states that had issued COVID-19-specific waste guidance. The Stericycle COVID-19 Knowledge Center has a list of these states with links to their guidelines.
- Plan for Vaccine Waste Management: As of April 2022, more than 218 million Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, both traditional and non-traditional care settings have had to navigate an increase in their generation of sharps waste. Like other types of COVID-19 waste, the CDC recommends handling COVID-19 vaccine waste the same way as any other vaccine waste. For more details on this process, visit our COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ.
- Manage Testing Waste: The testing of COVID-19 patients generates several types of waste, including personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, gowns, and masks as well as the test materials themselves. The CDC recommends working with your facility administrator or a waste management company for proper disposal.
COVID-19 Waste Management Checklist
Healthcare leaders should follow a checklist to guide their current and future waste management decisions, which could include:
- Confirming whether generated waste meets the definition of regulated medical waste in their state.
- Following updated state guidance on COVID-19 waste management.
- Assessing the chemical components of waste (such as cleaning agents, disinfectants, and laboratory reagents) and disposing of them accordingly. For example, leaders should consider whether a chemical waste should be managed as a hazardous waste
- Determining whether their waste vendors have additional waste acceptance criteria or other requirements.
Stericycle has services to help you manage your COVID-19 waste needs. Visit Stericycle’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Knowledge and Resource Center to learn more.