April 15, 2022

The Pandemic’s Unseen Heroes

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline healthcare workers have acted heroically in the face of crowded hospitals, staffing shortages, and shifting care protocols. As the medical establishment and society at large have struggled to navigate and adapt to this novel virus, we’ve heard countless stories of bravery, selflessness, and strength among the resilient care providers battling burnout throughout the pandemic.

Behind these rightly praised heroes of the pandemic, an unseen workforce has operated tirelessly to help the healthcare industry create and maintain a functioning environment of care. Medical waste management workers, in particular, have risen to a task that is designed to fly under the radar.

The Medical Waste Challenge Is Mounting

The pandemic has resulted in the generation of mountains of medical waste, including the enormous amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) discarded by healthcare providers. Then add sharps waste from the syringes and needles that were used in the 11.4 billion+ doses of vaccine administered around the world. The healthcare system generating all that waste was under pressure even before the pandemic. Worldwide, 30% of healthcare facilities were not capable of handling the waste loads they produced before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.

Although medical waste disposal typically occurs behind the scenes, it is critical for the smooth functioning of hospitals and healthcare practices. “Medical waste isn’t something people think about often, but proper disposal is essential to help protect our healthcare workers and keep our communities safe and healthy,” says Cindy J. Miller, President and CEO of Stericycle, a leading provider of medical waste management solutions.

Since its founding in response to the large number of syringes washing up on New York and New Jersey shorelines in the 1980s, Stericycle has been working to help healthcare providers with the safe collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of medical waste. Under Ms. Miller’s leadership, Stericycle has modernized its medical supply fulfillment center, scaled up production of sharps waste mailback kits, and launched SafeShieldTM, a new line of antimicrobial medical waste containers designed to fit into current healthcare workflows. Globally in 2021, Stericycle treated 1.5 billion pounds of medical waste, which equates to the weight of about 1,500 747 jumbo jets. The company also helped divert 104 million pounds of plastic from landfills by offering reusable sharps waste containers, treated 40 million pounds of unused pharmaceuticals prior to disposal, and recycled 1.1 billion pounds of paper worldwide.

Hospitals Aren’t the Only Places Generating Medical Waste

In addition to contributing to an increase in healthcare-generated waste, the pandemic also led to a change in where patients receive care. School gyms, sports arenas, and retail pharmacies have become full-time vaccine clinics generating high volumes of used syringes and needles. As hospitals filled, temporary quarantine and treatment facilities went into action in major cities, introducing medical equipment—and medical waste—to environments that weren’t always equipped to handle it.

Medical waste management companies expanded their scope accordingly. For example, Stericycle mobilized rapidly to support temporary quarantine and treatment facilities in nearly 40 states and at more than 4,500 COVID-19 testing sites. Stericycle also helped its more traditional healthcare partners manage the transportation, treatment, and disposal of COVID-19-related medical waste generated at their facilities and testing sites. Additionally, Stericycle worked closely with government agencies to help navigate the pandemic’s vaccine rollout. 

Safety for Care Providers Has Become More Urgent than Ever

Safety continued to be focus for workers at the front lines of the pandemic. According to Stericycle’s 2021 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report, the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined providers’ sense of safety in the workplace. Seven in 10 healthcare providers surveyed said improper medical waste management greatly impacted patient health and safety as well as puts the physical safety of providers at risk.

“We want healthcare workers to be able to maintain a safe and healthy working environment with the least amount of effort possible,” says Ms. Miller. With this in mind, Stericycle designed its new SafeShieldTM antimicrobial medical waste containers to provide a  practical and attractive set of waste storage options with an additional level of protection to help combat the growth of microorganisms. The containers are exclusively coated with Cupron®, a copper-based antimicrobial protectant that can help prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, mold, and mildew.

The Future of Medical Waste Management

When medical waste management works properly, it should be barely noticeable. But that doesn’t mean its impact is small. For companies like Stericycle, responding to the waste management demands of the pandemic is part of a larger mission to provide the innovations that help shape a healthier, safer world for providers, patients, and communities—now and in the future.

To learn more about Stericycle’s SafeShieldTM containers and other medical waste solutions, visit our Solutions page

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