The Impact of COVID-19 on Medical Devices and Sterilization

By Devin Partida, Editor-in-Chief,
Twitter: @rehackmagazine

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began causing problems around the world, health care professionals often had to adjust their practices as new research became available. However, one thing that was clear from the start was the need to maintain effective sterilization techniques.

Here’s how the pandemic impacted matters related to sterilizing medical equipment.

Busier Medical Facilities May Struggle With Sterilization Protocols

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published sterilization and disinfection guidelines for medical facilities long before the novel coronavirus became problematic. For example, it specifies the need to sterilize medical devices that enter sterile tissue or a patient’s vascular system. However, high-level disinfection suits items such as gastrointestinal endoscopes.

One COVID-19-related difficulty is that the pandemic placed people under extra pressure. If they feel rushed to return medical devices to service, there’s an elevated possibility of them skipping or forgetting steps necessary for complete sterilization.

Similarly, issues may arise if people do not have enough resources to engage in the proper sterilization protocols. COVID-19 caused numerous product shortages, and some of them could affect medical device sterilization between patients.

COVID-19 Exacerbated an Existing Sterilization Problem

Ethylene oxide (ETO) is a common choice used to sterilize medical devices, and people have relied on it since the 1950s. However, before the COVID-19 crisis, concerned individuals asserted that ETO’s emissions could contaminate the environment.

That development caused the closure of ETO production plants around the United States. However, statistics show that more than 20 billion medical devices get sterilized with ETO annually. It’s easy to understand, then, why limiting the ETO supply before the novel coronavirus hit caused knock-on effects during the pandemic.

In the short term, some facilities got permission to reopen and meet sterilization needs during the pandemic. However, the long-term goal is to investigate other options for getting medical devices ready for patients.

The Pandemic Spotlighted a Waste Problem

As more everyday people donned masks and gloves to protect themselves during the pandemic, many cities experienced higher levels of waste. That trend also extended to many medical facilities, making administrators more concerned with finding sustainable solutions.

For example, sterile blue wrap is one option used on surgical equipment trays before sterilization. However, since it amounts to 19% of operating room waste, some decision-makers choose rigid containers instead.

Additionally, some hospitals got permission from health authorities to sterilize disposable items to reuse them. That could cut down on hospital waste while managing supply shortage issues. It also aligns with current manufacturer packaging strategies. Many supplies used for operations come in multipacks, although surgeons may only use one per procedure.

Some Parties Published New Guidelines

COVID-19 also pushed some authorities to publish updated guidelines about how to handle disinfection needs. One review showed that heat of 70 degrees Celsius inactivated the virus in five minutes. Researchers suggested using heat more often to clean personal protective equipment (PPE).

Then, a Spanish radiology association released guidelines to help radiographers stay safe as the virus threat increased. The coverage clarified that sterilization eliminates all microorganisms from any critical equipment surfaces.

However, it also pointed out that low-to-medium disinfection suffices for many pieces of medical equipment used in daily routine care. The content suggested that a 0.1% bleach solution deactivates the virus in only a minute.

Future guidelines could also relate to new sterilization methods in the works. For example, Penn State researchers suggest plasma-based sterilization could work well for preparing face masks and ventilators before using them when caring for new patients. They devised a solution characterized by a room-temperature plasma, suitable for devices that cannot tolerate high temperatures.

COVID-19 Is an Evolving Situation

Scientists continue to learn more about COVID-19 daily. Some of their discoveries may affect current and future sterilization techniques. Thus, anyone who works in the health care sector should stay abreast of how things develop in this area to ensure they have the most up-to-date knowledge.