Before the COVID-19 pandemic, infection control wasn’t a priority for most service providers. In fact, many of them weren’t offering infection control services at all. Now that there’s a heightened awareness of the role of cleaning and disinfecting in preventing the spread of infectious diseases, however, these same providers are claiming they are the answer to facility managers’ prayers.
But experience has never mattered more.
Infection control is a complicated process, one that involves specialized knowledge and training. Using products incorrectly—or worse, using the wrong product—can damage surfaces and equipment and put the health of employees at risk.
Darrel Hicks wrote the book on infection prevention—literally. Infection Prevention for Dummies helps consumers and environmental service professionals understand infection transmission and identify the best cleaning techniques to keep infection at bay. Hicks earned his Master Environmental Services Registered Executive designation through IEHA and his Certified Healthcare Environmental Services Professional designation and Certificate of Mastery in Infection Prevention through the Association for the Health Care Environment.
James Parker is the general manager of Vital Solutions, a disinfectant manufacturer with a core competency in chlorine dioxide. The company’s premiere product, Vital Oxide, is on the EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2, meaning it has been approved for use against the virus that causes COVID-19.
Combined, Hicks and Parker have more than 50 years’ experience in infection control. We recently asked these experts for their thoughts on cleaning and disinfecting in the new normal and how companies can best protect their employees, their customers and their facilities.
Q: How is infection prevention different from cleaning?
Hicks: Until this recent pandemic, it seems like we’d been cleaning buildings for appearance’s sake and not for health’s sake. I think that that whole paradigm is shifting, and now there’s more interest in infection prevention as it relates to protecting the public and employees. Controlling the growth of harmful microorganisms such as the coronavirus is vital to human health and the prevention of infections. To clean for health, we have to understand basic bugs, whether they're bacteria, viruses, mold, or fungus, and have knowledge of how these bugs get spread around in the workplace. I think too often we just move things around, and we ought to be removing them.
Parker: Cleaning is really the first step in the infection control process. If a surface isn't cleaned or is too dirty, then the disinfectant/sanitizer will have a harder challenge and could in fact not be effective. With our products, they can clean and sanitize/disinfect in one step.
Q: Many corporate facility managers are considering opening and bringing their employees back. What should they be doing right now to prepare in order to provide an environment where their employees can breathe easy?
Hicks: Businesses looking to up their game in the areas of cleaning and disinfection will be our new normal. I believe in the future—and that future is now—but steps are needed if their expectations are to be met. These necessary steps include best-in-class products, processes and human resources who are educated about the prevention and transmission of disease. The simple cleaning and disinfection of environmental surfaces or frequently touched surfaces may be one of our key defenses in the future battle against infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
Parker: That’s a complicated question because there really isn’t one issue that’s going to make it easy for everybody. I think they need to assess everything that’s important to their facility. They should ask themselves, “All right, well, what am I dealing with here?” I think being able to do things quickly and efficiently and frequently without having negative, unintended byproducts would be the primary focus, like, “I can take care of this facility on this routine without having to replace things that I didn’t plan replacing.” But they also have to make sure it’s the best environment for the people who are going to be using it.
Q: How can facility managers properly measure the outcome for any cleaning and disinfecting they receive? How do they know it’s been done properly and was effective?
Parker: That would be hard. You’d have to take culture swabs, send those out to microbiology, grow those cultures, and see what pops. There really isn’t a good tool that I’ve seen that tells you, “Oh, we killed all these viruses. We killed all these bacteria.” We’re not there yet with the technology.
Hicks: They need to ask a contractor some questions before allowing them to even begin the service. How long has the contractor been providing disinfection services? If it’s just been since the pandemic, then I would be leery. How do they certify that what they’re doing is efficacious? What products are they using, and are they on the EPA’s List N? How safe is the product? If there is a case of COVID-19 in the facility after reopening, what are their procedures for addressing that? What sort of training does their staff get?
Q: We’ve heard of products that have claims that they have a lasting killing effect of, some of them say, up to 90 days. A couple of them say up to six months. What is that about?
Hicks: Those aren’t chemicals. It’s a mechanical action. It’s a coating that you put on to pre-clean surfaces. That coating has spikes in it, and so the bacteria impale themselves on those spikes. My problem with those coatings and claims is that I don’t know that that’s in the presence of soil. I’m leery of going with products that make those claims because of the soil load that gets on top of there that could insulate the bacteria from the spikes.
Parker: I would have to double check the terminology on what “killing effect” means because that could be inhibiting and not actually destroying. It could just be saying that this is inhibiting the growth of odor-causing bacterias and not actually killing the virus/bacteria when it comes in contact with the surface. Coatings make jobs a lot easier, especially for cleaning surfaces, and there are a couple of products I’ve seen that do kill a couple of bacterias in terms of sanitizing, but I haven't seen a durable that has an EPA-approved label for virucidal efficacy.
Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to share or anything else facility managers need to know?
Parker: I’m always big on trying to have no unintended byproducts. I recommend looking at products that you can use on multiple surfaces that aren’t going to have a negative short- or long-term impact. Odor is usually the main thing. If you come into a facility and spray a product and it smells harsh, then people aren’t going to want to be in there regardless of whether you’ve disinfected or not.
Hicks: You must be able to communicate well with the people who are returning to your building. Many of them have been watching the 24/7 news coverage of COVID-19. You have fear in a lot of people, and so you need to allay those fears. You need to communicate what you did for their peace of mind. Tell them, “We’re concerned about your health and your safety and that of your family. We invite you back to work, but be assured that we’re making sure you’re entering a building that’s been properly cleaned and disinfected.” It’s going to be a new normal, and a new paradigm requires new solutions. Don’t get ready—be ready.