The COVID-19 pandemic instantly increased demand for some types of medical waste management, such as the disposal of personal protective equipment and testing supplies. Waste management companies met this challenge last year, but it required a lot of flexibility, they said.

This year, health care providers have to dispose millions of needles and empty vaccine vials. But a shortage of sharps containers, the plastic buckets in which clinicians throw away old syringes and vials, is a problem.

Reacting of future needs

Waste managers are also trying to predict the pandemic’s long-term effects on medical waste management and reshape their companies to meet future needs. The US company Stericycle, one of the country’s largest medical waste management operators, reported that the pandemic slightly increased the demand for medical waste management. “Elective surgeries have been completely closed and yet we’re still able to see growth,” CEO Cindy Miller said on a February conference call. “We’ve got an uptick from COVID, whether it’s the testing and the vaccinations and all of that.”

The pandemic brought medical waste outside of the normal health care setting. Testing and vaccine clinics opened up in parking lots, and waste management companies have had to adapt. Testing at long-term care facilities generated lots of waste, and cleaning companies started asking for help with coronavirus-related jobs. Now county health departments need help getting rid of used syringes.

Medical waste manager Sharps Compliance, with its biggest customers pharmacies, installed more cleaning equipment and added warehouse space last year to increase its capacity. CEO David Tusa expects that to pay off this spring. “While the COVID-19-related orders we’ve received today are very significant, we do believe we’re just getting started as the country works to immunize Americans against the virus,” he said on a January conference call.

Mass vaccination sites

Jim Anderson, Stericycle’s VP of product management and innovation, wrote in an email that patients usually get vaccines in doctors’ offices or pharmacies. For COVID-19 vaccines, mass vaccination sites and hospitals are playing a bigger role.

CEO Miller said the pandemic has also made waste management less of a commodity. Previously, health care providers cared primarily about price. Now, she said, they’re looking for a company that can help them respond to the twists and turns that come along with a pandemic. “The pandemic certainly brings a lot of regulation, a lot of uncertainty to many of those smaller, independent doctor facilities,” Miller said on the Stericycle conference call. “We’ve enhanced our consulting services. We’ve targeted it toward what’s happening today and what do people need to be aware of as opposed to just a package deal of just the basics.”

However, the fundamentals of waste management haven’t changed. In an email, Anderson wrote that the current vaccine rollout is similar to immunization efforts during the flu season. “However, unlike other vaccines, the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine can change very quickly as new versions become available, and this may vary by states,” he wrote. “The sheer number of COVID-19 vaccinations and the ever-shifting information of when vaccines will be available has made vaccination administration and waste management challenging.”

David Skinner, executive vice president of business development at the medical waste company Daniels Health, agreed. Daniels Health saw an increase in demand, but Skinner said the main challenge has been reacting quickly. “Operationally, it’s the same,” Skinner told FreightWaves. “We just have to set up a lot of sites at very quick notice, for people who needed assistance to set up a COVID vaccination waste stream.”

Sharps container shortage

As the demand for needle disposal is spiking, some health care providers are having trouble ordering sharps containers. A fire at a chemical plant serving two major manufacturers, Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) and Cardinal Health, disrupted the supply of resin needed to make sharps containers. In emails, representatives from both companies said the fire has made it harder to meet demand, but they’re working to address the problem.

Meanwhile, competitors are stepping in. OakRidge Products, which makes plastic items for health care and other industries, has seen a surge in new customers. Daniels Health, which provides reusable sharps containers, has also seen increased interest after the fire. OakRidge CEO Conor O’Malley said sharps container sales were already up by about 20% before the fire, which he attributed to the vaccine rollout. “Our production facilities are super busy, but we’re managing to take in every order that comes in,” O’Malley told FreightWaves.

This post was first shared on Waste Management World, Why the COVID-19 Waste Management is Complicated, on March 15, 2021.

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