— By Patricia Olinger —
The virus doesn’t care — and we all know which virus I’m talking about. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, does not care about politics, an individual’s socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, or age. It has one mission: infect whomever and as many as it can. Over the past year and a half, we’ve realized just how quickly pathogens can travel from person to person. This has caused us to adjust infection prevention protocols, including increased cleaning and disinfection efforts, mask coverings, social distancing and more.
Someday, we’ll look back and discuss and debate our response to the pandemic. But right now, we must come together and take every step we can to care for one another, because this virus won’t.
An Invisible War
I am a registered Biosafety Professional. Until I joined ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association, to lead its Global Biorisk Advisory Council™ (GBAC) division, I had been a leader in environmental, health and safety, known for my work in biosafety and biorisk management.
I have worked with teams that put some of the first AIDS drugs on the market, treated four of the Ebola patients that came to the United States in 2014, and participated as a member of the external advisory committee to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to review laboratory biosafety practices in the CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories.
Was I surprised when the pandemic hit? Not exactly. Biosafety and healthcare professionals predicted for some time that a pandemic was coming, we just didn’t know when and what the exact virus would be. We also know that this will not be the last emerging virus to infect humans.
We are currently battling a war with an invisible opponent. It exploits every weakness we show. With a layered response that includes resources, trust and leadership, we can defeat COVID-19.
- Resources for all. At the beginning of this pandemic, we saw the impact of limited resources. Healthcare workers did not have the appropriate amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep themselves safe while they cared for the sick. Facility managers struggled to acquire cleaning and disinfecting equipment as manufacturers around the globe faced supply chain issues. The public panicked, leading to a shortage of common household items.
This lesson has shown how critical it is to ensure workers have the necessary tools to stay safe and continue fighting on the frontlines. This extends to retail and restaurant workers as they clean for health and protect those who patronize their business.
- Building a community of trust. We must learn to trust one another, especially the experts who have spent countless hours researching, studying and determining how to get us out of this pandemic. We can’t trust just any online information that is spreading faster than the virus. It’s important to have conversations with medical and biorisk professionals who understand the complexity of the virus and the best solutions we have to fight it.
- Leading from within. Not only do we need leadership that inspires and moves organizations and communities forward, but we need to become a leader ourselves. We choose our own behaviors every day, thus choosing the outcome of this pandemic. Our decisions today impact our future years from now.
Biosafety Management 101
As part of GBAC, I have worked with thousands of businesses through our GBAC STAR™ Facility Accreditation program to help facilities, including retailers and restaurants, stay open and safe. Determining our strategy for this war through a biosafety/biorisk management lens, I see numerous key points that we need to recognize:
- Encourage or mandate vaccinations. At the beginning of the pandemic, we did not have this crucial weapon in our arsenal. The safety of the vaccines has been studied extensively, and adverse reactions are extremely rare. While some fear how rapidly the vaccines were approved, it’s important to know it was a global effort with all hands on deck — which is not something we’ve seen before. Additionally, mRNA vaccines may be newer, but they’ve been studied and used for viruses such as the flu, Zika and rabies. There is no doubt that our vaccines protect us from serious illness and death from SARS-Cov-2.
Some restaurants have begun requiring proof of vaccination to enter. Although validating vaccination status for all guests entering your store or restaurant may not be feasible for all businesses, mandating or strongly encouraging vaccinations for your employees can reduce the risk of virus transmission.
- Require masks in your facility. I know everyone is tired of wearing a mask, but there’s no denying it: masks work. They provide a layer of protection that prevents you from being infected, which protects others from becoming infected. Knowing that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominately by inhalation of respiratory droplets, such as when people cough, sneeze, talk, or do so much as breathe, a mask helps reduce the emission of said droplets. Numerous studies have shown mask-wearing results in a 70% reduced risk of acquiring infections.
We are at a pivotal point in this pandemic and keeping this layer of protection in place from a biorisk management perspective makes total sense. especially when we are talking about indoor shopping and dining.
- Facilitate social distancing. We all want to be able to hug our family members and friends without restrictions. But during a pandemic, it’s essential to enforce social distancing when you don’t know if the customers entering your business are unvaccinated or have potentially been exposed to the virus. Encouraging staff to keep their distance, keeping plexiglass barriers installed at checkout counters, and 6-feet markers where customers line up can all support social distancing.
- Assess and address your business’s ventilation. One silver lining from this pandemic will be the innovations and solutions that we see in this area that improve indoor air quality.
- Promote hand hygiene. Regular handwashing, for 20 seconds at a time, is recommended. In areas where customers and staff don’t have access to soap and water, place hand sanitizer dispensers that offer a product with at least 60% alcohol. Managers should make sure restrooms are well stocked with hand soap and paper towels, especially during peak business hours.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces. Even though the virus transmits through the air, high-touch surfaces still matter. From a biosafety/biorisk management standpoint, we know that you can become infected by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. What we don’t know is what percentage of people become infected this way. Whether it’s 1% or 20%, effectively cleaning and disinfecting surfaces helps make facilities safer.
We realized back in the late 1800s that hygiene matters when it comes to health and controlling infectious disease outbreaks. That time in history is known as “The Great Sanitation Revolution.” Clean and healthy spaces are not only good for helping control the COVID-19 pandemic, but other infectious disease outbreaks such as the flu, norovirus, salmonella, E. coli, MRSA, tuberculosis and measles as well.
- Get educated. Managers should make sure everyone is trained on how to protect themselves. This includes your employees and any outsourced contractor that cleans and disinfects your facility. This will help keep staff safe and healthy, as well as your customers.
To win this war it will take capacity, trust and leadership. Thankfully, businesses like restaurants and retail stores can remain open and encourage public health and safety while we all work collectively to defeat this virus.
Patricia Olinger, JM, RBP, is the executive director for GBAC. Prior to joining GBAC, Olinger was an assistant vice president in the Office of Research Administration and the executive director of the Environmental, Health and Safety Office (EHSO) at Emory University. During Olinger’s 13-year tenure, EHSO had university-wide responsibility for all aspects of environmental, health and safety support, including EHS compliance support to Emory Healthcare. This included biosafety support to the Emory Serious Communicable Diseases Unit (SCDU), which cared for four Ebola patients in 2014.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mRNA.html?s_cid=11344:how%20do%20mrna%20vaccines%20work:sem.ga:p:RG:GM:gen:PTN:FY21
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/masking-science-sars-cov2.html