Staff meal breaks in the COVID-19 era: How 5 systems are limiting infection risks

Meal breaks offer healthcare workers crucial time to eat and reenergize amid a hectic shift. But in the era of COVID-19, meal breaks may also pose an infection risk, as staff members must take their masks or respirators off to eat. Break room or cafeteria space may also be limited, making it difficult for employees to maintain appropriate social distancing. 

Many hospitals and health systems have implemented additional infection control and social distancing measures to ensure staff can eat safely without spreading the virus to colleagues.

Here, five healthcare leaders share the precautions or recommendations their organizations have made to keep employees safe during meal breaks.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, MD, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore. Our organization has taken numerous steps to ensure staff can eat safely without risk of spreading the virus. Leaders in each area work to identify alternative spaces for breaks; shifts and break times are staggered to decrease the amount of staff in the breakroom at a given time; and signage is posted to remind everyone to maintain physical distancing. We have a whole communications campaign to convey messages about the risk of viral transmission in break rooms. We have also provided guidance and ideas for ways to safely conduct unit-based celebrations while minimizing risk (avoiding communal food, or serving only individually wrapped items to take back to a desk for a virtual "party").

Michael White, MD, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Phoenix-based Valleywise Health. We provide a lounge where (staff) can take a break, relax and get something to eat. Since the beginning of the outbreak, we've reduced capacity of the lounge and modified its layout to ensure social distancing, and we've eliminated the self-service stations where employees are likely to congregate. We've also increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfection of shared surfaces. The same restrictions apply to the employee cafeteria.

Cherie Frame, RN, MSN, infection prevention director at Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare. Taking a lunch break is a normal part of everyone’s day, but by following these simple steps you create a way to ensure that everyone will be able to come to work each day.

  • Wash your hands prior to getting your food.
  • Avoid buffets. Always select individually created meals. If the only choice is a buffet, make sure you wash your hands again before you begin to eat. Shared serving utensils create risk.
  • Wipe down the location where you plan to eat to decrease the risk of you coming into contact with anything communicable. Cleaning where you ate when finished can also be a great way to keep your co-workers safe.
  • The greatest risk you have is when you remove your mask to eat. Make sure you avoid sitting within 6 feet of someone else who is also eating. If you can't space yourself at that distance, take turns eating. Make sure at least one of you is always wearing a mask.

Michael Calderwood, MD, associate chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. To help prevent transmission among healthcare workers, hospitals and clinics should stagger breaks, rearrange seating to maintain physical distance, place signs on tables and rooms indicating how many can safely use the space at once, regularly disinfect surfaces, avoid sharing food and utensils and ensure easy access to soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It may also be necessary to provide staff-only dining areas if cafeterias have insufficient space to accommodate staff, patients and visitors. Outdoor dining is also an option, weather permitting, and tents can be an option to help create new dining spaces.

Shira Doron, MD, infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Boston-based Tufts Medical Center. We have provided ample education to staff in a variety of modalities and encouraged mask-wearing and social distancing at all times — with particular attention to break rooms and work rooms, and during rounding. We created a break room task force to recommend best ways to promote break room awareness and education, which led to signs on break room doors, maps of break rooms outlining where it is safe to sit, and placemats in break rooms, showing people where it is safe to sit. Employees are also asked to stagger breaks, ensure six feet of distance always — but especially when unmasked for eating and drinking — and eat alone, when possible. We also asked employees to take responsibility for shared space, including wiping down surfaces with disinfectant before and after use. Finally, every unused space inside and outside the hospital that has six feet on every side, now has a high top table and chairs for more eating options.

Kelly Gooch contributed to this report.


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