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Build-up in medical waste a concern

The Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (S.P.R.E.P.), Leota Kosi Latu, has expressed concern about a buildup in waste at healthcare facilities brought on by the coronavirus [COVID-19] global pandemic.

Speaking last week during a webinar hosted by the S.P.R.E.P. that focused on waste management and pollution control, Leota said a health crisis can lead to a build up in waste and the current global pandemic is no different.

“A health crisis means that we are expecting more waste, some of which is toxic, coming from our healthcare facilities,” he said. “In normal times, these are wastes we have to deal with on a daily basis; however, during a health crisis such as the COVDI-19 pandemic, we are now faced with the task of having to get rid of these as soon as possible.” 

Leota also emphasised that in order for countries to have the capacity to address the issue, they need a medical waste treatment facility, personal protective equipment [P.P.E.] for workers dealing with healthcare waste, as well as the knowledge on how to handle and manage these wastes.

Furthermore, he said improper management of wastes, to a greater extent, would mean that pathways to contamination wouldl then be created, which will and can eventually compromise public health. 

“Increased volume of wastes during a health crisis or disaster is inevitable. With limited capacity of our waste facilities in the Pacific, there is likelihood of significant wastes ending up in our oceans and the environment in general. Unmanaged wastes then become lingering pollutants,” he added.

The discussions during the webinar led to a Ministry of Health [M.O.H.] official, Mesepa Loleni, revealing that medical waste is a major issue that they are currently facing and is a buildup from the measles epidemic as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The limited resources is an ongoing issue for us when it comes to healthcare waste. At the moment, we have two trucks used to transport healthcare waste – one for Upolu and one for Savaii,” Ms Loleni said. “One of the key challenges for us right now is trying to improvise with the resources we have in order to deal with the increased volume of waste as a result of quarantine.” 

Ms. Loleni added that with the Government’s hotel and home quarantine exercise targeting returning Samoan residents, there has been an increase in waste that the Ministry has to collect from the various quarantine locations.

“With only one truck and one incinerator at the moment, we are trying our best to make use of what we have,” she emphasised. “Usually when using the incinerator to destroy medical waste, we would have two burn cycles a day. 

“However, during the measles epidemic, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have now increased this to four burn cycles a day to cater to the increased amount of medical waste.

“However, during the measles epidemic, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have now increased this to four burn cycles a day to cater to the increased amount of medical waste.” 

S.P.R.E.P. Hazardous Waste Management Adviser, Joshua Sam, added that during a health crisis, there are three key steps which should be followed. 

“First, there needs to be clear responsibilities of who is in charge of medical waste. Medical waste passes through different streams before they are disposed of, and there are a number of players involved – including healthcare waste facilities, transport and so forth,” he said. “A clear indication of who is responsible for managing these wastes is necessary.”

Sufficient resources should be provided to committees in charge of medical waste, particularly institutions responsible for testing and treating patients, and who are the first responders during the pandemic according to Mr Sam. 

“Thirdly is the designing of effective medical waste management plans. It is important during pandemics that the institutions in charge of medical waste have in place plans either facility-wide plans.” he added. “Or if you have systems where some of your facilities off-site or quarantine and self-isolation sites, it is very important that there is a plan in place to deal with medical waste.”

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