The Role of Environmental Monitoring Amidst Pandemic

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By Lorn Clancey

Temperature and environmental monitoring continue to play a significant role in healthcare facilities battling COVID-19. Even without a pandemic, healthcare professionals rely on a variety of temperature-sensitive assets – from medications to lab samples – to deliver high-quality care. 

Healthcare leaders must reevaluate and streamline their solutions to take on the novel coronavirus itself and also help address its financial implications. They must balance proper conditions with minimal human error while ensuring efficient workflows and patient safety. The best approach? An automated monitoring solution that can protect patients and assets without relying on manual oversight. 

Automation in Action 

Implementing automated temperature and environmental monitoring solutions allows staff to take back some lost time. With an automated system, employees no longer need to walk around and verify all refrigerators and freezers are working properly or manually enter temperature data – both tasks that are prone to human error. 

An automated system can also alert staff as soon as an issue arises, so problems can be addressed significantly quicker. The facility saves money on product waste and can utilize labor hours for other tasks. Applications that require special attention during COVID-19 range from differential air pressure monitoring for isolation rooms to temperature regulated storage at drive-up testing facilities. 

Let’s take a look at how each use case keeps patients safe and operations efficient: 

Air Pressure Monitoring 

In an ideal world, COVID-19 patients should be isolated in negative air pressure rooms to prevent respiratory droplets from entering hospital air supply. Differential air pressure (DAP) sensors accurately monitor air flow and can alert staff through email, text, phone calls, local audible tones and LED visual indicators if a change is detected. The most advanced DAP sensors operate independently of a network connection to ensure reliability. Facilities can also set up customizable reporting and store real-time and historical data to help with compliance requirements and inform data-driven decision making. 

It’s a fact of life for healthcare professionals that all hospitals must address and minimize healthcare associated infections (HAIs), which can result in unnecessary time and money spent on patient careand damages to a healthcare system’s reputation. Mitigating that risk with negative pressure isolation rooms means a decreased spread of disease among patients and staff and ultimately more beds available for other uses – like elective surgeries – that will help resuscitate the industry. 

Smart-er Testing 

Proper storage of reagents is crucial to creating a chemical reaction and providing an accurate test result from a coronavirus sample. A shortage of properly stored reagents could cause the hospital or lab to be ineffective in caring for potential patients.

Refrigeration and healthcare have always gone hand-in-hand, but recently, drive-up coronavirus testing sites have become popular due to their efficient layout and ability to support social distancing. They can also give patients an opportunity to become familiar and appreciative of a healthcare system, potentially leading to additional revenue down the road. Like most other samples, the tests administered at these sites must be stored at specific temperatures (2-8 degrees Celsius) to accurately determine the presence of coronavirus.

Portable refrigeration coolers are useful, but adding a smart component to them could drastically reduce human error and provide a better and more accurate testing experience for patients. Mobile devices can be used to view temperatures inside the smart coolers and eliminate the need to open a cooler to check its temperature, which can affect readings and specimens. If a cooler is accidentally left open, smart coolers can trigger an automated alert; additionally, like other temperature monitoring systems, smart coolers can record real-time and historical data with or without a network connection. 

Having access to this kind of information – and smarter refrigeration in general – can be the difference between questioning if a specimen was compromised or confirming that all tests present are safe and reliable. 

Protecting Limited Medications 

Automated monitoring systems can also prevent the loss of valuable coronavirus treatments. Antiviral medications can shorten the duration of COVID patient symptoms by 30% – and in some cases they can mean the difference between life and death. Remdesivir from Gilead Sciences currently costs commercially insured patients roughly $3,000 per cycle. With patients requiring up to four cycles of the medication, the loss of antiviral medication could be both costly to a hospital and have a devastating impact on a patient’s recovery. 

Likewise, convalescent plasma is being used to treat those infected with coronavirus, and there are very specific temperatures which plasma must be stored at and thawed to remain effective. Automated systems use digital sensors with submersible probes to monitor temperatures with minimal contact and dry contact cables to detect motion that could jeopardize plasma in an incubator. 

One plasma donation can help up to three COVID patients, but according to the American Red Cross, it’s in short supply, making it vital to preserve the convalescent plasma that is currently available. The recent announcement by the FDA naming convalescent plasma a regulated investigational product will only create additional demand. Should plasma drop below the requisite temperature, a system could be risking both patient safety and a facility’s bottom line. 

Preparing for Vaccines

Researchers worldwide are working around the clock to develop a coronavirus vaccine. One from Moderna Inc. is currently in late-stage human trials, and the biotech company has already shared that their vaccine will need to be stored at -40 degrees Celsius or colder “for shipping and longer-term storage of up to six months.” Pfizer Inc. has stated their version could be kept for “up to a day” at temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. It’s safe to say this is a moving target with different vaccines providers all having their own cold storage requirements.

Regardless of who gets their first, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases has emphasized that the complexities of storage and handling of a coronavirus vaccine will have major effects on its distribution. 

Simply put, if a vaccine is not stored properly, it can lose potency. This can leave people still vulnerable to the disease they’re trying to avoid or sometimes even result in severe, harmful side effects. For this reason, ensuring vaccines – particularly those that will soon help us curb coronavirus infections – are stored at the correct temperature is crucial. When one finally becomes available, unprecedented global demand coupled with limited supply will make it imperative that no vaccine is wasted. 

Lorn Clancey is the senior director of temperature and environmental monitoring solutions at CenTrak, a market leader in locating, sensing, and security services for the healthcare industry. In this role, he has been involved with the deployment of hundreds of  temperature and environmental monitoring solutions at healthcare facilities across the country.

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