There are several things people can do to prevent spreading illness.

 Tracy McConathy, Infection Prevention/Employee Health Manager at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, said she focuses on breaking the chain of infection.

“The thing I focus on when educating employees on infection prevention is ‘breaking the chain of infection’,” McConathy said. “There are six links in the ‘chain’ of infection. If we break any one of those links, we can stop the spread of illness.” 

Infectious organisms can spread by contact with contaminated items, droplets, airborne or blood exposures, she said. COVID-19 is primarily spread by droplets, but can be airborne if a patient is undergoing an aerosol generating procedures.

The six links in the chain include the infectious agent, the reservoir, the portal of exit, the mode of transportation, portal of entry and susceptible hosts. 

McConathy offered examples that would stop the spread of influenza. 

The infectious agent is the pathogen, or germ, that causes diseases. Proper diagnosis and treatment can break the link, she said, but noted antibiotics should not be used for a viral illness. 

The reservoir includes places in the environment where the pathogen lives, which includes people, animals, insects, medical equipment, soil and water. 

“A person who is sick with the flu is the reservoir and should stay isolated from others while ill – do not go to work or school sick!” she said. 

The portal of exit is the way the infectious agent leaves the reservoir — through open wounds, aerosols, and splatter of body fluids including coughing, sneezing and saliva.

“The flu virus must exit the body, usually by sneezing or coughing,” McConathy said. “(We) can prevent this by wearing masks, sneezing into a tissue or coughing into (your) elbow or mask.”

Mode of transmission is the way the infectious agent can be passed on, through direct or indirect contact, ingestion or inhalation.

“Influenza is transmitted by droplets that can be transferred by inhalation or contact,” McConathy said. “(People) can prevent this by wearing masks and washing (their) hands.”

In general, she said hand washing is the most important thing people can do to prevent spreading any type of illness.

The fifth link is portal of entry,  which is the way the infectious agent can enter a new host — through broken skin, the respiratory tract, mucous membranes and catheters and tubes.

McConathy said this chain can be broken with good hand hygiene and by not touching your face. 

A susceptible host, meanwhile, can be any person, the most vulnerable of whom are those receiving health care, are immuno-compromised, or have invasive medical devices.

“This is why vaccination is so important,” McConathy said. “If you are vaccinated, you are a lot less susceptible.”

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, meanwhile, McConathy suggested people use every tool available.

“To combat COVID, we must use every technique possible,” McConathy said. “When social distancing is not possible, like when nurses are caring for a patient and must physically contact them, masking and hand hygiene are imperative.”

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