By now, we are all aware that a novel coronavirus has arrived in the U.S. The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that started in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has infected almost 25,000 people in over 25 countries—including 11 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of February 5, 2020 according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). As public health leaders across the world have jumped into action, there is still much to learn about how this outbreak will play out.
While the CDC still considers the risk level to be low in the U.S., concern still exists and many facility managers of schools to businesses are wondering what, if anything, they should be doing. Fortunately, there are simple and proactive steps that can be taken to help prevent the spread of germs in facilities amid concern over COVID-19.
To this end, I recommend a three-part approach to implementing a robust and effective program. It is also important to point out that facility managers can use these same behaviors and practices to prevent the spread of germs every day and in readiness for the next outbreak, even when COVID-19 isn’t a concern.
Part 1 – Public health basics: These activities form the foundation of any public health and infection prevention plan. Cleaning teams likely understand they are responsible for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, but they may not realize they can also spread germs. Encourage the following behaviors and practices with your staff to help prevent germs from coming into and spreading in your facility:
- Get vaccinated: In the case of COVID-19, it’s not available yet, but staff should be up to date on their vaccines. Learn more about what vaccines the CDC recommends for adults here.
- Keep hands clean: Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
- Cover coughs and sneezes: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. Dispose of tissue properly and perform hand hygiene.
- Stay home when sick: Remain at home and avoid contact with others when sick, except if needing to visit a medical provider. Do not travel or go to work while sick.
Part 2 – Environmental stewardship: From common cold and flu viruses to COVID-19, cleaning and disinfection are critical to prevent the spread of germs via surfaces. In fact, almost 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted via contact or touch and surfaces act as reservoirs for germ transfer to hands if they aren’t cleaned and disinfected as cited in The Secret Life of Germs by Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D. If you are doing the job right, you are helping to prevent the spread of pathogens and thus breaking the chain of infection. The following steps will ensure your cleaning and disinfection program has a strong foundation.
- Specify procedures: A strong cleaning program has written procedures in place that specify cleaning processes for different areas in your facility. Each procedure should include what surfaces need to be cleaned, who is responsible for each area, the products to be used to clean each surface. Other product details should include the directions for use, the contact (or dwell) time, details on how to avoid cross contamination by cleaning from clean to dirty. Update procedures each time a new product is introduced or a best practice is identified.
- Products to use: Make sure that disinfectants have EPA-approved claims against pathogens that cause illness or concern in your facility. These may include cold viruses, influenza, norovirus, or MRSA. In the case of COVID-19, the EPA’s Emerging Viral Pathogen policy allows for the quick determination of products that have demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to the emerging virus. Check your manufacturer’s website or contact your disinfectant manufacturer if you are unsure of claims.
- Educate and engage your staff: Ensure your cleaning staff are trained adequately on your facility’s cleaning and disinfecting procedures. In addition, engage your employees as engaged employees often have higher performance. For more on developing and sustaining employee engagement, click here.
Part 3 –Ensure ongoing quality and preparedness: Here are two additional practices that facility leaders should tackle to be adequately prepared to prevent illness and outbreaks:
- Written cleaning program policy: Policies are overarching documents that identify key components of your cleaning program. Policies should outline how often procedures will be reviewed and updated, what procedures should be in place, and the frequency in which employees will receive training and feedback on procedures.
- Outbreak preparedness procedure: Ensure you have an outbreak preparedness procedure in place for when outbreaks do impact your facility. Your plan should be separate from your everyday preventative cleaning procedures and cover the extra measures that need to be taken. These include helping employees understand the importance of identifying the signs and symptoms of any outbreak infection, knowing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear if needed, how germs are generally transmitted, and how to determine if different products need to be used.
Once the behaviors and practices above are in place, facility managers should feel confident in their ability to take on any infectious disease challenge, whether it be COVID-19, a spike in flu rates, or the next new pathogen of concern to come our way.