Stories of Service: How the CDC protects health care workers who are treating coronavirus patients

September 14, 2020

Every day, health care workers in this country use personal protective equipment to stay safe while treating patients. However, it can be difficult, even in normal circumstances, to equip our country’s 18 million health care workers with proper PPE. That’s where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory comes in. The laboratory, part of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, standardizes and regulates various types of PPE, and its role has been critical in the nation’s battle against the coronavirus.

“We handle the entire standardization process,” said Maryann D’Alessandro, director of the laboratory. “That includes research, the identification of needs and making necessary changes to the approval process.” When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the national demand for PPE posed a monumental challenge for D’Alessandro’s CDC team—one of its jobs is approving all respirator masks used in occupational settings.

“In February, it was evident that we needed to ramp up approval operations, particularly for respirators,” D’Alessandro recalled. “Manufacturers were reporting increasing sales, and Americans were buying respirators at two-to-three times the normal level.” Up to that point, the U.S. imported most of these respirators from China. But the supply slowed when China nationalized its respirator manufacturing plants.

Filling the PPE gap

To meet new PPE demands, American companies such as Ford, Whirlpool and General Motors contacted the CDC to offer their assistance and ask how they could produce respirators in their factories. D’Alessandro’s team advised each company how to adjust its operations to produce safe and effective PPE for health care workers.

But American companies could not immediately pivot from building cars and washing machines. Foreign companies offered to fill the gap. In normal times, D’Alessandro’s team would have conducted in-person inspections of foreign production facilities before certifying their goods for sale and use here.

However, most countries closed their borders and restricted travel because of the pandemic, making the typical levels of scrutiny difficult. “We allowed, because of shortages, products from other countries to be used in the United States, as long as their standards were equivalent to the CDC’s standards,” D’Alessandro said. This measure required an FDA emergency use authorization but was necessary to save lives, she added.

Focusing on mental health

NIOSH also focuses on the mental health of workers in the U.S., and the pandemic’s impact on workplace safety. To help companies and organizations create healthy work environments, NIOSH created the “Total Worker Health” program, which examines mental health issues related to workplace safety and seeks to improve the well-being of the workforce.

At times, laboratory employees worked seven days a week for longer-than-normal shifts, a testament to the devotion of D’Alessandro’s team. “We have an incredibly dedicated staff,” she said. “Before the coronavirus hit, some of our employees weren’t aware of exactly how important our work is. Now we can really see it. It’s possible that we did as much in these six months as in the first 100 years of respiratory protection.”

To learn more, visit the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory website, follow the CDC on Facebook and sign up for the agency’s monthly email newsletter.

In addition to the CDC’s efforts to support the nation during coronavirus, discover the great work other federal employees are doing in the Partnership’s “Stories of Service” blog series.

This post is authored by Zach Taylor, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.