Containing and properly disposing of medical waste can already be a highly regulated process, and in times of a health crisis like a pandemic, these restrictions can become even more important to adhere to. The proper handling of medical waste ensures the safety of staff and patients alike, as improperly disposed of harmful waste can lead to serious health risks to others.

Thankfully, according to the CDC the standard medical waste disposal methods are sufficient in sanitizing and removing the COVID-19 virus, though the danger is more in how contagious the virus is and how easily it can spread during the processing of medical waste. The CDC recommends a few additional practices to help protect yourself when dealing with medical waste during a pandemic.

Protect Yourself

The biggest danger during a pandemic is the risk of infection. Depending on the source of the pathogen and how it is transmitted, extra measures should be taken to keep from catching anything while processing or transporting waste. In the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, the CDC recommends following the protection guidelines in place for preventing the spread of COVID-19. This includes wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves and eye protection, as well as masks or other gear to help prevent the airborne spread of the virus. These personal protection measures may change depending on the type of pathogen causing the pandemic, but protecting yourself should be your first priority.

Properly Organize Your Medical Waste

Not all medical waste is handled the same way. Having different disposal sites for various types of medical waste is important, especially if chemical waste is involved. In general, there should be a separate container for sharp things like needles, disposable blades, glassware like disposable pipettes, etc., and a biohazard waste bag for hazardous chemical waste and biochemical waste such as bodily fluids. Depending on the type of outbreak, it can be helpful to have separate containers for substances likely to have come in contact with the pandemic. In the case of COVID-19, this is mostly going to contain PPE as well as cleaning and sanitation materials. Keeping substances likely to have come in contact with COVID-19 separate can help make waste disposal employees aware of when extra precaution may be necessary. Lab waste is still being handled normally, but waste like cultures coming from research labs may be handled differently. Check with your local waste disposal facilities or waste management companies like to keep up to date with any changing practices.

What is Being Considered Medical Waste

While it is obvious that waste and discarded PPE from hospitals, labs, and medical testing centers are considered medical waste, in the case of a pandemic there are other types of waste that may be considered medical waste. In the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, what is classified as medical waste really depends on the location or industry the waste is coming from. In terms of quarantined areas, most waste could be considered medical waste depending on the severity of the quarantine and population density of the area. It’s also important to note that any waste from the travel industry is currently being considered medical waste, especially if it is from cruise ships or other compact environments in which COVID-19 cases were confirmed. The management of this particular medical waste is being handled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and requires more thorough decontamination procedures than most medical waste would.

Household Waste

For people being told to self-quarantine either as a result of testing positive for COVID-19 or for having some symptoms but not enough to warrant testing, regular household waste may be considered medical waste. For household waste, the CDC recommends bagging your waste in a sturdy bag or double-bagging your waste, making sure the top of the bag is securely tied shut. The current disposal and sanitation standards are enough to safely remove waste once it reaches a treatment facility.

Waste Water Treatment

While the handling of wastewater treatment might change for more waterborne illnesses, things stay relatively the same in the case of the COVID-19 virus. The disinfecting and purifying measures used to treat wastewater are effective at killing most viral components, including the COVID-19 virus.

Small Scale Medical Waste Management

If you run a small medical center or testing facility with minimal medical waste generation, there are ways you can help regulate and manage your medical waste in-house. There are two types of medical waste you can sterilize using specialized equipment, sharps, and red bag waste. Sharps include anything like needles, glassware, or other sharp fragile pieces of equipment. What constitutes as red bag waste might be a little less obvious though. Red bag waste is considered anything that involves or has been contaminated by human bodily fluids. This includes blood, urine, amniotic fluid, cerebrospinal fluid, semen, vaginal secretions, saliva that contains blood, or any fluids that seem to be contaminated by blood. Red bag waste also includes organ tissue or whole organs from operations such as transplants or surgeries like an appendectomy.

These types of wastes can all be processed by a machine that converts the hazardous material into a harmless solid which can be tossed in the regular trash. One such machine, the PathogenX, can process up to ten gallons of medical waste daily, can process both sharps and red bag waste, and is imbued with antimicrobial technology to prevent the further spread of infection. Using waste disposal machines designed to process medical waste on-site can both cut down on processing costs, as well as help relieve the high demand waste management companies are under in the event of a pandemic.

If you are looking to learn more about waste management as a whole or investigating methods of processing waste management on-site, you can find more information on equipment and best waste management practices at The site will also provide some information on the average financial costs of medical waste disposal, as well as some hidden costs regarding improper handling of medical waste.

In the case of a pandemic, always check with your local waste disposal companies as well as keep up to date on any CDC and OSHA announcements regarding changes to the standard waste management practices. Required processing procedures can change depending on the severity as well as the transmission method of the pathogen, so keeping up to date on best practices is essential.