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Avoid transmitting COVID-19 through face masks

Written by
Dr Ayub Macharia
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The world is facing one of the most perilous challenges of our time, a virus that has refused to obey all manner of blockades, and spread exponentially in spatial-temporal scale. Covid-19 virus has infected over 2 million people globally and over 100,000 have lost their lives, and the number is still increasing. Kenya’s toll stood at 363 confirmed infected persons by 27th April 2020.

The Government of Kenya has made it mandatory for everyone to wear a face mask while in public places. Failure to wear a mask attracts a jail term of six months or a fine of Kshs 20,000 or both. In this regard we have seen an upsurge in demand for masks. Most masks are single use and disposed after one day use. Every day, thousands of masks need to be disposed. In countries where Covid-19 infection is high, most of these masks are infected, and if not properly disposed could contribute to spread of the virus.

Normally, if masks were used and disposed in a hospital environment, there are no challenges with waste disposal since this is regulated by the country’s legislation and international conventions such as the Basel Convention. At a medical facility, medical waste is normally handled with a lot of care and is transported by the National Environment Authority (NEMA) licensed vehicles to an incinerator for safe disposal through burning.

Our homes and places of work do not normally handle medical waste. The main approach to waste disposal is linear whereby waste is mixed together, sometimes sorted and transported to the dumpsite. Masks have started appearing in illegal dumpsites near our residential areas. Children can pick these used masks and play with them. Some instances have been reported in social media where some people collect the used masks, wash and sell them to unsuspecting Kenyans. Since masks are not cheap, these reused masks are sold cheaply and poor Kenyans may be targeted customer segment. This is dangerous since it may help to spread of COVID-19 infections.

The Ministry of Health on 9th April 2020 issued protocols on safe management and disposal of waste arising from safety products in prevention of spread of Corona virus (MoH/PH/32). The protocols targeted safe management of face masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment. These items after being used are to be treated as potentially infectious and should be disposed with utmost care.

The MOH protocols prescribe that homes and places of work need to put in place an elaborate system for waste management, taking cognizance of the fact that this is medical waste and potentially infectious. With the challenge of Covid-19, the waste handlers can do the following to curb infections:-

Managing masks and gloves at home

  1. The reusable masks should be appropriately disinfected before re-use. Disinfection involves spraying the waste with a chlorine based disinfectant made by mixing water with 5% Jik at a ratio of 1:9. Where chlorine based disinfectant is not available, one can wash the mask using soap and running water.
  2. Everybody should disposes waste at the designated point preferably in an appropriately colored liner bag / container labeled infectious waste. Do not mix face masks and gloves with ordinary wastes.
  3. Use proper personal protective equipment when handling the waste such as mask, gloves
  4. Perform proper hand hygiene after handling of wastes
  5. Disinfect the waste using appropriate chemicals daily.
  6. When the liner bag is two thirds full, disinfect the waste, tie it’s mouth tightly and store it safely.
  7. Drop the filled bags at the nearest public health centre for safe disposal. Avoid littering our environment.

Managing masks and gloves at a household has a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case

  1. Segregate the masks and gloves and store them in a leakproof liner bags or containers labeled “infectious waste”.
  2. Liaise with local public health officer to provide the leak proof liner bags.
  3. Disinfect the waste in the liner bag daily
  4. When the liner bag is two thirds full, disinfect the waste, tie it’s mouth tightly and store it safely.
  5. Seek guidance from local public health officer on how to dispose the filled liner bag or take it to the nearest public medical facility for safe disposal.

Managing masks and gloves at retail outlets, commercial properties, offices, factories, bus parks and stations, industries, road blocks and other public places

  1. The owner/occupier/manager/caretaker is expected to contract the services of a NEMA licensed medical waste handler as per Environmental Management and Coordination Act Waste Management Regulations 2006.
  2. The NEMA licensed Medical Waste handler will provide adequate appropriately colored leak proof liner bags. 
  3. Segregate the masks and gloves and store them in a leak-proof liner bags or containers labeled “infectious waste”.
  4. Disinfect the waste in the liner bag daily
  5. When the liner bag is two thirds full, disinfect the waste, tie it’s mouth tightly and store it safely.
  6. Drop the filled liner bag at the designated area for collection as per the days agreed with the NEMA licensed medical waste handler.
  7. The NEMA licensed medical waste handler shall transport the waste to an incinerator for safe disposal.
  8. The local public health officer and other players such as NEMA will supervise safe waste disposal of the infectious waste from public places.

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