#ShoreHealthcareHeroes: Infection Prevention

Robin Breder, infection preventionist, and Melissa Szarzynski, infection prevention manager

April 26, 2020

Long before quarantine began here in New Jersey, Shore’s infection prevention team, led by Melissa Szarzynski, was keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 virus as it spread out from Wuhan, China, knowing there was a good chance it might make its way to the United States. Part of her team’s job is to follow global trends in infections and ready the hospital for a possible pandemic. Now that it’s here and patients with COVID are being cared for at Shore, her team is the resource for all departments on safe infection prevention protocols related to the virus. 

The infection prevention team is small but mighty. It’s made up of Szarzynski and her three infection preventionists: Robin Breder, Rita Moore and Marli Greenbaum. Dr. Christopher Lucasti, Division Chief of Infection Prevention, is their right hand, especially throughout this experience. 

Infection Prevention touches each and every healthcare worker in the organization, from dietary and environmental services to surgery and the ICU. During this pandemic, they’ve been on call 24/7 to help answer any questions our staff may have. They must keep up with the fluid and ever-changing guidelines from the CDC, Department of Health, and the National Healthcare Safety Network, and they follow through to make sure staff fully understand these guidelines. 

While not typically frontline staff, the infection prevention team has also been responsible for calling patients who were tested in the ER for COVID-19 and discharged home to let them know their test was positive. On these calls, they couple education with compassion. 

Szarzynski says although she has to deliver bad news, patients have been very appreciative to know that their tests are positive. They are grateful to hear directly from the infection prevention team. 

“They ask a lot of questions. We let them know how long they have to stay home, how to prevent them from transmitting the virus to loved ones, and how to keep themselves as healthy and safe as possible while they recover. I’m pleased to say that the overwhelming majority of people with positive tests have fully recovered at home without the need for a trip to the hospital,” Szarzynski says. 

Szarzynski and her team pride themselves on being approachable and compassionate with staff as well, making sure they feel comfortable with asking them questions and receiving constructive feedback. It’s this rapport that helps staff feel well-informed to safely perform their jobs and helps Shore maintain its high standards for infection control throughout the hospital. 

“Our phones are always ringing, especially during this pandemic. We’re always here to help staff better understand what they need to do to keep themselves and everyone else safe.”

When asked to give an overview of what her team does, Szarzynski says it’s hard to put into words how much they are involved with. 

“Our team approves all new equipment, procedures and policies to make sure they meet infection prevention requirements. We go through units daily to make sure patients are on the proper isolation protocols for the infection they have. We serve on nearly every clinical committee you can think of. We track and report infections to the government bodies that require them. And when the Joint Commission comes in to review the hospital, infection prevention is one of the biggest priorities. We conduct weekly infection prevention rounds and we help out with employee health, and then when pandemics like COVID-19 appear, we still have to fulfill all of our other duties as well,” Szarzynski says. 

Szarzynski said the hardest part of COVID-19 is that it is a new virus.

“They’re still collecting data on this virus, like how long people are shedding the virus before and after testing positive. It’s much, much different than the flu for many reasons, but what sets it apart most is that it’s spreading faster and to larger amounts of people. It’s very different than anything we’ve ever seen. We’ve been through SARS and MERS, but this virus is different,” Szarzynski says. 

Robin Breder says there are some valuable lessons our community is learning from COVID-19.

“We’re finally getting the community to understand what germ theory is all about and how germs spread disease. People know now how important it is to wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their faces. After this, I think people, in general, will do more to prevent the spread of any kind of virus or infection.”