To Disinfect or Not to Disinfect Is Not the Question

Industry Experts React to Updated CDC Guidelines
By Servicon

The CDC gave us a lot to talk about when it updated its guidelines regarding cleaning and disinfecting best practices to protect against COVID-19. Declaring that the chance of catching COVID-19 from a surface was extremely slim, the agency advised against needless disinfection, maintaining that in most instances, cleaning surfaces with soap and water is all that is needed. However, initially, the media and others did not seem to understand that this guidance was for the home—not commercial or public facilities.

While the public may have been confused, those with experience in the professional commercial cleaning industry understood the distinction immediately.

“Our industry hasn’t used ‘soap’ in over 50 years,” says Laurie Sewell, CEO of Servicon, a leading California-based commercial cleaning services provider. “I knew from the terminology that the CDC had to be referring to cleaning in the home, not public facilities or workspaces that have frequent use by multiple people.”

Michael Diamond, co-founder of The Infection Prevention Strategy (TIPS), agrees: “The language and the overall context found in the guidelines is targeted to home environments where the introduction of foreign pathogens is minimal. In the home setting, we are often only exposing ourselves to our own microbes. In a commercial setting, such as a mall, office, hospital, etc., we are constantly exposed to various foreign organisms. The risk of contracting an infection in a commercial setting is not the same as within the bubble of a household. It is imperative to adhere to proper cleaning and disinfection protocols in commercial and public settings. It is irresponsible to simply clean in a public setting.”

While the recommendation to use soap—and to clean without disinfecting—didn’t resonate with the commercial cleaning sector, other parts of the CDC’s message did. One of these was the need to eliminate certain application methods.

“We agree with the CDC’s stance against fogging,” Sewell says. “We’ve been talking about the dangers of the ‘spray and pray’ method for some time. We have never used fogging as a disinfecting practice. You are spraying disinfectant in the air. Disinfectant is a pesticide, and it is illegal to spray it without a pesticide license for a reason.”

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Clean Matters

Sewell also agrees with the CDC’s recommendation to reduce the amount of disinfecting being done—but only to a point and only if there is an adequate cleaning frequency.

“I don’t subscribe to over-disinfection,” Sewell says. “Good regular cleaning allows for less disinfection. However, as an industry, the frequency of cleaning being done has diminished greatly over time. Some clients have cut the scope of work for dusting and vacuuming to once a quarter, for example. The call to avoid over disinfection creates a stronger case for regular cleaning. The CDC’s updated guidelines did get people thinking about cleaning frequency, and in many cases, cleaning is not being done often enough to ensure a healthy facility.”

Industry consultant Ron Segura agrees that cleaning is not where budgets should be cut and that disinfection is necessary. He believes it is up to the industry to speak up and educate clients.

“Historically, budgets have never seemed to be enough to provide the expected level of cleaning required by our customers,” he says. “But that does not mean that we have to ‘just do the best we can, with what we have to work with.’ As cleaning experts, we need to be aware of the latest technologies that can positively impact productivity. We need to know our buildings so we can adjust frequencies and reallocate time to disinfection of critical areas. We need to educate our customers that there are areas where to ensure a safe environment for building occupants, cleaning frequencies cannot be changed. The cleaning process is important, as it is the first step in a two-step process to ensure healthy environments. The second step of disinfection is critical to ensure that contamination levels are constantly low.”

A Time & Place

Like Diamond and Segura, Sewell believes, “Absolutely there is a time and place for disinfection.” She maintains that several things should guide informed decisions regarding when it is necessary, including the environment and the risk.

“Every environment has micro-organisms and pathogens,” she says. “It comes down to how likely infection is to spread in a particular environment. For example, previously, most single workspaces were used by the same person. Now, oftentimes, you do not know who was in there just a few hours before. That is why commercial real estate entities that want people back in their offices need to have a good infection-prevention plan. And, of course, healthcare is different from other environments. Disinfection may not be necessary for all common areas, but where patients are sick and other people can be exposed, it is mandatory.”

Diamond agrees. “All environments require full cleaning of surfaces to ensure that soil and debris are removed,” he says. “However, each unique environment from a school to a hospital requires a different level of disinfection depending on the exposure risks involved. Cleaning alone does not kill spores and various bacteria from surfaces. We need to disinfect not only for COVID-19 but for C. diff, MRSA, salmonella, E. coli, and various antibiotic-resistant organisms. As for SARS CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19], new strains are developing rapidly worldwide. Now is not the time to stop proven and effective disinfecting procedures.”

Disinfect - CDC Guidelines

Change Lies Ahead

Sewell believes the need for responsible disinfection will not change, but she is sure the pandemic will alter the commercial cleaning industry in other areas.

“In the past, clients would often rely on performance-based cleaning,” she says. “The old thinking was that it was clean because it looked clean. While Servicon has been proponents of cleaning for health for quite some time, the public is finally aware that cleaning for visibility is very different than cleaning for health! I believe this is going to encourage a move toward occupancy cleaning, prioritizing cleaning based on need. This will require a flexible workforce since it will not be the same cleaning routine or even the same route every day. It is also going to mean using technology such as sensors to tell us when a space was last occupied. At Servicon, we are already using a technology called CrowdComfort that tracks our technicians’ cleaning routes and even tells building occupants when rooms have been cleaned. These types of technologies are going to continue to advance.”

Segura also sees change on the horizon. “More than anything, COVID-19 has reinforced the need to clean and disinfect the separate areas in a building properly. The building service contractor now has the opportunity to educate customers regarding the best processes and systems to be used in what areas and what frequencies. Scopes of work are going to change in order to maintain a healthy environment.”

While Sewell hopes the attention the pandemic placed on hygiene is permanent, she warns against becoming complacent. “We are in an era of superbugs,” she says. “SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus that is relatively easy to kill. Some pathogens we already know of are harder to kill and have a 50% mortality rate. Be smart. Be prepared. Be proactive. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that building occupants and our employees demand and deserve a safe and healthy workplace and the confidence that their workplace is hygienic. Don’t let them down.”

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