How to Manage COVID-19 Waste

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

The surge in COVID-19 patients has led to a sharp rise in medical waste that could carry the novel coronavirus. One common question raised by the COVID-19 outbreak is how to properly manage and dispose of COVID-19-contaminated waste. The short answer is that COVID-19 waste is not treated any differently than other standard regulated medical waste (“RMW”).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), and World Health Organization (“WHO”) have all stated that waste from COVID-19 patients should be handled as RMW and should be managed in accordance with routine procedures. OSHA recently issued guidance stating that medical waste with potential or known COVID-19 contamination is not a Category A infectious substance, which is a type of waste capable of causing permanent disability or life-threatening or fatal disease. (See osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/controlprevention.html#solidwaste.) Rather, COVID-19 waste is a Category B infectious substance (does not cause life-threatening or fatal disease) which is discarded as regular RMW. OSHA advises as follows:

Use typical engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE, such as puncture-resistant gloves and face and eye protection, to prevent worker exposure to the waste streams (or types of wastes), including any contaminants in the materials, they manage. Such measures can help protect workers from sharps and other items that can cause injuries or exposures to infectious materials.

Similarly, solid waste from households or businesses (i.e., municipal waste) that have known or potential contamination should be treated like any other non-contaminated municipal waste. OSHA recommends the same precautions as quoted above.

For guidance regarding the disposal of RMW generally, see the CDC’s Guidelines for Environmental Infection Control in Health-Care Facilities (2003). Generally, the CDC’s guidelines advise as follows:

    • A single, leak-resistant biohazard bag should be sufficient for containment of RWM, provided the bag is sturdy and waste can be discarded without contaminating the bag’s exterior.
    • Contamination or puncturing of the bag requires placement into a second bag.
    • All bags should be securely closed for disposal.

In short, neither the WHO, CDC, nor OSHA are, at this point, recommending any special precautions with respect to the management of COVID-19 contamination other than those precautions typically used for RWM. Nevertheless, it is prudent to take extra precautions when handling potential COVID-19-impacted waste, such as:

    • Keep abreast of the latest developments and recommendations from the WHO, CDC, and OSHA as the situation is very fluid;
    • Be sure to properly tie and secure all biohazard bags;
    • Clean all surfaces with an EPA-recommend disinfectant (see List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2);
    • Where possible, keep COVID-19 waste separate from other waste so it can be easily identified and properly handled;
    • Ensure proper use of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) (gloves, facemasks); and
    • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based sanitizer immediately after removing gloves or handling trash bags.

Finally, most states continue to follow the general guidelines noted above; however, it is prudent to check to see if your state has enacted any particular requirements with respect to COVID-19 waste. Check also to see if your waste hauler has established any additional requirements designed to ensure the safety of their employees.

If you are experiencing compliance issues due to the COVID-19 situation or have questions regarding the disposal of COVID-19 waste, please contact Margaret Hill, Frank Tamulonis, or Steve Zumbrun.

As COVID-19 issues permeate virtually all aspects of commerce nationally and internationally, we stand ready to help. Blank Rome’s Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) Task Force includes interdisciplinary resources across every business sector from insurance recovery to HR.

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