Coronavirus and Medical Waste
Thankfully, the medical waste coronavirus rules for COVID-19 waste are the same as those for regulated waste. We may see higher volumes of hospital waste during the pandemic, so administrators, nurses, and facilities staff should be prepared with added bins in more locations. The COVID-19 biohazardous waste guidelines are evolving daily, so bookmark this page and check back often.
What are the rules and regulations for COVID-19 coronavirus medical waste handling? As U.S. cases ramp up, healthcare providers like hospitals, clinics, dental offices, nursing homes, and funeral homes need to know the best practices for biohazardous waste handling during the pandemic.
Though providers and other waste generators could see higher volumes of waste—China’s Wuhan province saw a 500% jump—medical waste handling regulations during the coronavirus outbreak are easy to understand and follow. See the straight facts below from the CDC and OSHA.
1. There are no special coronavirus medical waste regulations
The U.S. Federal medical waste coronavirus regulations are the same as the regs for any biohazardous waste. That’s per the CDC and OSHA in their official publications. The CDC’s coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) guidelines for healthcare professionals recommend no special handling practices.
OSHA echoes the CDC’s stance, pointing out that waste known to contain—or suspected of containing COVID-19 should be handled the same as any medical waste. The same precautions, procedures, and PPE apply. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) offers similar guidance.
2. Follow existing medical waste rules for coronavirus
Obey existing medical waste regulations and safe handling best practices for ordinary medical waste when handling waste suspected of coronavirus contamination, including:
- Know the laws. Coronavirus medical waste, like all hospital waste, is regulated by the states, with oversight from the CDC, EPA, OSHA, DOT, and DEA.
- Separate waste. Identify whether waste is pharmaceutical, sharps, chemical, pathological, or non-hazardous, and separate accordingly.
- Use the right containers. Sharps go into approved sharps containers, though HWM recommends single-use sharps containers for COVID-19.
- Document. The right healthcare waste documentation must accompany all shipments. Even non-hazardous waste from COVID19 facilities should be labeled as such, so handlers can take proper precautions.
- Color-code. Put sharps in puncture-resistant red biohazard containers. Biohazardous waste goes in red containers and red bags.
- Prep containers. Tape all bags and containers for shipment. Package them according to DOT weight guidelines. Store in a dry, secure area.
3. Coronavirus Facemasks, gowns, and tissues
As with flu-contaminated hospital waste, medical waste like gowns, facemasks, and patient tissues isn’t regulated waste. It may come as a shock, but if a patient blows her nose, the discarded tissue isn’t classified as biohazardous by the CDC or other regulatory bodies.
That said, every step should be taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. While gowns and facemasks under normal circumstances may be not be considered medical or biohazardous waste. We are not in normal circumstances, therefore, waste contaminated or worn while treating a suspected patient with the coronavirus, should be treated as medical waste even if not required.
4. Prep for more waste during the COVID-19 pandemic
China saw a 500% boost in medical waste during the Wuhan Province outbreak in 2019. The South China Morning Post noted that medical waste production in the city of Wuhan went from 40 to 240 tons a day during the outbreak. As a result, authorities deployed mobile treatment facilities.
There’s no indication yet whether the U.S. will see a similar rise in medical waste volume. That said, hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities should be prepared. To help cope with increased demand, the US DOT has amended the National Emergency Trucking Relief Act to exempt motor carriers from hours-of-service regulations. That change would let medical waste firms like HWM assist hospitals with round-the-clock collection.
5. Put more bins in more places for COVID-19
With the likelihood of at-capacity or overloaded hospitals, more medical waste in more places is inevitable. To meet the demand, proactive medical facilities should increase the number of medical waste disposal bins and add convenient locations. More bins mean less chance of overload at crunch times.
Hospitals should consider ordering more empty bins from disposal and trucking companies and keeping them in inventory. Consider also ordering more bags, sharps containers, and containers of all sizes to keep pace with added volume. Healthcare workers should never be without a place to put contaminated waste.
6. Cover and label even non-medical waste bins
At busy times, healthcare workers may accidentally toss coronavirus medical waste into non-hazardous waste bins. To avoid this, cover even non-regulated waste containers. Covering all containers makes nurses, CNAs, and other medical professionals slow down and pay attention before making a mistake.
The idea is to make waste disposal a little less convenient to ensure contaminated waste doesn’t find its way into non-medical trash. One caveat: the volume of tissues and other potentially contaminated but non-regulated waste increases during a pandemic. Covering non-medical waste could lead to spreading germs as employees have to touch covers repeatedly. Consider foot-raised covers, or labeling coronavirus waste bins too, for added security.
7. Color code so you don’t overload
With more medical waste from COVID-19 comes increased risk of overloading containers. Overtaxed employees may accidentally clog hospital waste streams and receptacles by tossing non-regulated waste into biohazard bins. One vital reason for color coding is to cut the overloading danger.
It’s less likely an employee will throw a paper towel or everyday sweeping waste into a clearly color-coded bin. In the U.S., red bins are always for medical infectious waste, yellow is trace chemotherapy medications, black is RCRA hazardous, and white and blue are for RX Waste non-hazardous.
8. Wash hands after touching even non-medical waste
During a pandemic, even non-regulated waste may be contaminated. Patient tissues (for example Kleenex used by a COVID-19 patient) and gowns aren’t considered coronavirus medical waste. Even so, that so-called non-hazardous waste may carry pathogens that could infect staff and other patients.
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows the COVID-19 coronavirus can live on plastic, glass, and other hard surfaces for up to three days. Bin lids, door handles, cleaning equipment, and carts may all remain contaminated for days. Therefore, frequent hand-washing is vital.
9. Make coronavirus medical waste signage multilingual
During a pandemic, the key strategy is, “Make it convenient.” Employees who have to stop and think when they’re overtaxed may make the wrong choice. Medical waste coronavirus containers should be clearly labeled in the languages the hospital or clinic’s staff and patients speak natively.
English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Tagalog, and German are among the most commonly spoken languages in the U.S. Of course, it’s best to know your workforce, and create signage accordingly. Though coronavirus waste isn’t separately regulated, it’s good policy to label it separately for safety.
10. Coronavirus medical waste best practices
Though COVID-19 coronavirus waste follows the same safe-handling and disposal regulations and procedures as “regular” medical waste, there are a few additional considerations. For best results:
- Use single-use sharps containers. HWM recommends using single-use sharps containers for all COVID-19 patients.
- Label even non-hazardous waste. Even non-regulated waste like patient paper tissues should be labeled as potentially COVID-19 infected for the safety of medical waste workers, in case a bag or container breaks or spills.
- Use red bags for sharps. Reusable sharps containers don’t need to be placed into red bags during the pandemic, but it’s a good added precaution.
- Don’t overuse red bags. There’s no need to use red bags for PPE that isn’t grossly contaminated. Gowns, masks, and tissues can go into regular trash.
- Disinfect. Containers or equipment that come in contact with coronavirus medical waste should be cleaned with ordinary disinfectants.
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