98: COVID-19 – To Clean or To Disinfect? Or Both?


UPDATE: The CDC has made changes to workplace guidance as of March 21, 2020, which may make some of the information on this post obsolete:

  • Updated cleaning and disinfection guidance
  • Updated best practices for conducting social distancing
  • Updated strategies and recommendations that can be implemented now to respond to COVID-19

We are currently in the throws of the 2020 Corona Virus pandemic, or COVID-19. Much information is being disseminated – from how far apart we should stand from one another to how to wash our hands properly. I have even seen videos on how to properly wash hands using ink to illustrate how to achieve full coverage of soap.

Because hygiene is critical, many disinfecting products are harder to find now as a result of panic buyers hoarding supplies of items that they believe will make them safer. The truth is, many of these disinfectants are just not necessary according to all currently available information. Think about it, to prevent the spread of illness, we must avoid touching our face (eyes, nose, mouth) and simply wash our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

People think they need to use bleach, alcohol, or some product containing these ingredients to disinfect surfaces around the clock. All available guidance tells us that routine cleaning is adequate for general work areas. Disinfecting is only recommended for suspected cases of CORONA-19.

At the risk of sounding like a word-nerd, let me share the CDC definition of the two terms in use here; cleaning and disinfecting.

  • Cleaning refers to the removal of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. Cleaning does not kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.
  • Disinfecting refers to using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.

Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers

So what are employers supposed to do? According to the CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, you should perform routine environmental cleaning, which means routinely cleaning all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs.

Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after persons suspected/confirmed to have COVID-19 have been in the facility

The CDC also recommends employers to use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label. Furthermore, provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down before each use. (UPDATE: The CDC has made changes to workplace guidance as of March 21, 2020).

OSHA goes even further:

Because the transmissibility of COVID-19 from contaminated environmental surfaces and objects is not fully understood, employers should carefully evaluate whether or not work areas occupied by people suspected to have a virus may have been contaminated and whether or not they need to be decontaminated in response.

Outside of healthcare and deathcare facilities, there is typically no need to perform special cleaning or decontamination of work environments when a person suspected of having the virus has been present unless those environments are visibly contaminated with blood or other body fluids. In limited cases where further cleaning and decontamination may be necessary, consult U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for cleaning and disinfecting environments, including those contaminated with coronaviruses.

Disinfecting Your Facility if Someone is Sick

If there is a worker under investigation of having COVID-19 or there has been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace, here is where disinfecting comes into play. Employers will need to clean and disinfect all areas used by the sick person, such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment like tablets, touch screens, keyboards, remote controls, and ATMs. Here are the steps:

  • Clean surfaces using soap and water. Practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces. Remember, high touch surfaces include tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, sinks, etc.
  • Disinfect using diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, other EPA-registered household disinfectants.
  • Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. For example, never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
  • Many products recommend keeping the surface wet for several minutes to ensure germs are killed.
  • Precautions such as wearing gloves and making sure you have proper ventilation during the use of the product.

For soft surfaces like carpeted floor, rugs, and drapes:

  • Clean the surface using soap and water or with cleaners appropriate for use on these surfaces.
  • Launder items (if possible) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely OR disinfect with an EPA-registered household disinfectant. These disinfectants meet EPA’s criteria for use against COVID-19.

For electronics, such as tablets, touch screens, keyboards, remote controls, and ATMs

  • Consider putting a wipeable cover on electronics.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and disinfecting.
  • If no instructions are available, use alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol and dry the surface thoroughly.

For clothing, towels, linens, and other items:

  • Wear disposable gloves.
  • Wash hands with soap and water as soon as you remove the gloves.
  • Do not shake dirty laundry.
  • Launder items according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely.
  • Dirty laundry from an ill person can be washed with other people’s items.
  • Clean and disinfect clothes hampers according to the guidance above for the appropriate type of surface.

So remember, increase the frequency you clean the general work environment, which opens up a wide variety of cleaning products that might not be in high demand. Reserve those precious disinfectants for cleaning visibly contaminated surfaces (think bloodborne pathogens) or where there is a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.

Coupled with other recommendations like reviewing your company’s sick policy, social distancing, staggering start/stop times, breaks, lunches, and limiting meetings – these will make your workplaces less likely to experience a significant outbreak.

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