2021 Flu Season: The Pandemic Edition

Ultimately, to be successful in this effort, several best practices should be integrated into every cleaning program for optimal results.

There has been a keen focus on keeping facilities clean and safe against the coronavirus for the past ten months. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for sound disinfection processes across almost all facilities. However, as we turn the calendar and temperatures continue to dip, there are other communicable diseases in addition to COVID-19 that inevitably have started to spread. Welcome to cold and flu season: pandemic edition.

According to a Centers for Disease and Prevention study, an average of three to 11 percent of the United States population becomes infected with the flu every year. In 2019 alone, more than 410,000 Americans were hospitalized from the flu. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu is more important than ever.
While facility managers and their custodial teams have continued to be the first line of defense in fighting the spread of the coronavirus, this flu season, they must continue to keep their guards up. Ultimately, to be successful in this effort, several best practices should be integrated into every cleaning program for optimal results.

Keep a Routine

The first and most important step to any flu season cleaning plan is to diligently continue with the daily and ongoing routine of cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing. As the seasons shift, it’s the perfect time to audit your existing cleaning plan to ensure it is effective and that you have the right chemicals and tools for the job.

With a variety of processes and best practices available, it is not uncommon to see the word cleaning used when what is meant is sanitizing, or to hear someone mistake disinfecting for sterilizing. During the pandemic, more people, industries and publications have joined the conversation, and for some, understanding the nuances between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing has become confusing. However, it’s important to know the purpose each plays in a building’s ongoing cleaning efforts. To ensure accuracy and to prevent potential misunderstandings, it’s important to remember the following:

Cleaning usually involves using soap and water or physical techniques to remove visible debris, dirt and dust from surfaces and objects. It’s important to remember that cleaning should occur before disinfecting or sanitizing surfaces. It does not kill germs—instead, it assists with the overall process by removing germs and decreasing the spread of infection.

Sanitizing uses chemicals to reduce the number of select bacteria on surfaces. What sanitizers don’t do, however, is kill viruses or spores, such as COVID-19. Sanitizing is typically used on hot spots, such as front desks and doorknobs, throughout a facility on an ongoing basis as it requires a shorter dwell time than disinfecting (dwell time refers to the amount of time disinfectants need to remain wet on surfaces to properly cover pathogens). Sanitizer label instructions should be followed to comply with the requirements for proper solution preparation, surface application, pathogen efficacy and contact time.

Disinfecting uses chemicals or other means to kill germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting typically requires a longer dwell time than sanitizing and is not a replacement for cleaning dirty surfaces. Overall, this process kills harmful viruses and bacteria on hard surfaces to help prevent the spread of infection. Disinfectant label instructions should be followed to comply with the requirements for proper solution preparation, surface application, pathogen efficacy and contact time. Disinfection is held to a higher standard and requires a higher percentage of kill as compared to sanitization requirements as set by the EPA. Disinfectants require a minimum of a six-log kill rate or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogens to further remove and mitigate exposure to harmful microorganisms including viruses like COVID-19.

Sterilizing provides 100 percent removal and eradication of microbes from a surface. Sterilization efforts are used on healthcare equipment that may enter the human body and on non-porous surfaces, such as operating room tables, that need to be 100 percent free of pathogens.

It’s critical to use and apply each of these terms correctly in any cleaning program, as using different processes can make a critical difference in fighting not just the pandemic, but the flu, as well.

Mind the Hot Spots

During flu season, it’s important to identify a facility’s “hot spots,” or high-touch surfaces that can be prime areas for germs to live and grow. Research shows the flu virus can live and potentially infect a person for up to 48 hours after being spread to a surface, making daily cleaning critical. Ongoing cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting efforts will greatly increase the chances of preventing the spread of germs.

Identifying and treating some of the most potentially contaminated places in your facility is a critical step for stopping the spread of the flu. As with the coronavirus, typical hot spots for the flu include front desks, doorknobs, elevator buttons, computer keyboards, paper towel dispensers and faucets.

Find the Right Solution

Choosing the right product and using it correctly and safely go hand-in-hand, but it can be difficult to know where to start when looking for cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants. Recognizing that the product selection process can be overwhelming, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the options that best fit your environment and cleaning goals.

To ensure the right product selection, all cleaning staff needs to read and understand their product’s EPA label to confirm that it is proven effective against the flu virus on the surface they intend to use it on. Also, critical details such as dwell time should play a role in the buying process because sometimes it’s not practical to choose a disinfectant concentrate that requires a 10-minute contact time if you are looking for a sanitizer that can work on soft surfaces like curtains or pillows.

Understand Product Usage

Once the right product is selected, the next step is to ensure that it’s being used correctly, paying special attention to mandatory dwell times and the dilution factors. Dwell time is important because if the product is removed too soon, it might not kill the pathogen as indicated on the product label. Not abiding by the proper dwell time not only puts guests and staff at risk for exposure to the potentially harmful pathogens that don’t get killed, but it also opens the facility up to liability issues for not disinfecting appropriately.

Chemical management and dilution are also key to accurate and effective cleaning. Inaccurate dilution may lead to too much of a chemical in a solution, which could damage surfaces and overexpose guests and staff to the chemical. Conversely, using too little product may not allow for the appropriate chemical ratio needed for proper disinfection per the product label, thus exposing guests and staff to harmful, unmitigated pathogens. Utilizing a chemical management system can help simplify the process by ensuring proper dilution every time.

Safety also needs to be top of mind for cleaning staff when using cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants. Most chemicals require the use of gloves and eye protection. For example, gloves should always be worn when using bleach solutions to protect your hands, and cleaners and disinfectants should never be mixed unless a label indicates that it’s safe to do so. Additionally, it’s important to ensure any staff members who use cleaners and disinfectants read all instruction labels to understand safe and appropriate use.

Spread Awareness

While in flu season, staff and visitors must be educated on ways to avoid the flu virus. This can be accomplished by continuing to promote the importance of hygienic practices like wearing masks and proper handwashing. Additional efforts that can prove effective include displaying signs that promote flu safety throughout your facility, providing extra hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas and encouraging workers and guests to stay home when sick.

While facility management teams have been so dedicated to the health and safety of their facilities throughout the pandemic, it is important to stay just as diligent during flu season. Facility managers and cleaning staff must continue to be focused on protecting workers and visitors from exposure to harmful germs and illnesses.

At the end of the day, the importance of implementing an effective cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting process during flu season cannot be overstated. By identifying hot spots for the spread of microbes and mitigating them with the appropriate products, a healthier environment for all can be achieved.

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