Marty Stempniak, Staff Writer

Maybe the secret to turning the corner on infection control lies in embracing one of the most repulsive parts of nursing home work — vomit cleanup.

That’s the message I gathered from an alert that just came across my desk, tied to the not-so-enviable task of swabbing upchucks in nursing homes. While many amongst this field might want to run in the other direction when a resident loses his or her lunch, researchers with Clemson University are actually sprinting toward the burning building, so to speak.

Vomit cleanup is a “huge” problem in long-term care they note, as doing it wrong could spell the spread of potentially deadly diseases, such as C. Diff. and norovirus. About 60% of outbreaks for the latter highly contagious disease occur in long-term care facilities, often spreading through vomit, making proper cleanup so crucial. And 100,000 C. Diff. infections occur in LTC each year, with 1 of every 11 in the elderly population dying within 30 days of diagnosis.

Aiming to better understand how to solve this issue, Clemson researchers recently earned a $1.5 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. They are teaming with the CDC and others to investigate the best ways to wipe up after someone gets sick. But don’t expect a bunch of Ph.D. types to show up in your nursing home with mops and buckets next year.

They’re actually planning to do so in a laboratory, using “simulated vomitus” from recipes developed by an expert in this regard at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They plan to use the imitation form to help measure dispersion and determine the effectiveness of strategies developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the vomit is fake, they plan to use real, human noroviruses, as the CDC’s lab is one of only two in the country equipped to culture them.

I myself have a weak stomach and would never last a day working in any kind of healthcare setting, let alone studying fake vomit in a lab. But Angela Fraser — one of the chief investigators and a professor in Clemson’s food, nutrition and packaging sciences department — says she chooses to focus on what she can gain in knowledge, not lose from her own stomach in this endeavor.

“I try not to think about it,” she told me by email, followed by a smile-face emoji. “Focus on the science, not the vomit.” Solid advice, if you ask me.

Fraser thinks vomit cleanup isn’t getting the attention it deserves in long-term care, and is excited to come up with standard procedures that can easily be implemented in any nursing home to reduce infectious disease, and boost the quality of life for residents.

Until then? She encourages long-term care leaders to focus on better training and monitoring of their staffs. Oh, and have those cleanup kits ready and available at a moment’s notice.

Follow Staff Writer Marty Stempniak @MStempniak.