“The cleaning industry is really a frontline of defense. They are the industry that is going out in businesses, homes, convention centers or any other public facing buildings to ensure they are cleaning, sanitised and disinfected, if necessary.”
- Patricia Olinger, Executive Director, Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC
In March 2020, we spoke to Patricia Olinger, Executive Director, Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) about the coronavirus. That time the virus was new and very little was known about it. Today, as more and more variants take the world by the storm, we hear some interesting and noteworthy advice from Patricia.
Tell us about Omicron
Omicron is the new variant of SARS CoV-2. We knew there would be a new variant. It is one that the WHO has deemed a variant of interest and that’s partly because we are starting to see cases pop up, more than we would have typically expected. There is still a lot to be learned about it - is it as infectious as Delta or some of the other variants (we’re seeing it is), does it cause as serious infections as some of the other variants? We are still learning.
Another thing that concerns people is the effectiveness of the vaccines we have all been given, it doesn't matter which country we live in, against these new variants. We are seeing that it’s not always the case but because there are so many mutations on the Omicron variant, the question is are the current vaccines going to protect us? We are finding that it may be the case but we are still learning and we are ready to go into whatever the new normal is going to be.
How is it different from other variants of COVID-19 in terms of severity and transmission?
That’s one of the things we are still learning about. One of the differences lies in the spike protein. It depends upon who you read and what you read. There are more than 50 mutations in this particular variant and I think there are more than 30 mutations in the genetic code on the spike protein which is a lot more than Delta or other variants.
So when you are changing things like that and your vaccines are making something that blocks the ability of the virus to the cell by that spike protein, you’re hoping that it will block whatever comes forward. When you see those mutations, they may actually go and attach to the cells. Those are the things that are happening with Omicron. It may make it more infectious. We are finding that may be the case. Luckily we are also seeing that it may not be causing illness as serious as other variants. The more positive news coming out is that there is protection from vaccines that we are all receiving.
What role will the cleaning industry play in combating this variant?
The cleaning industry is really a frontline of defense. Even before the pandemic was announced, I had written an article because of my experience in international biorisk management, biosecurity and bioresponse about how a pandemic was coming and we were not prepared. The pandemic was announced two weeks later. In that article I wrote that it will target the frontline of defense - not just the healthcare sector, but the cleaning industry as well. This is because they are the industry that is going out in businesses, homes, convention centers or any other public facing buildings to ensure they are cleaning, sanitised and disinfected, if necessary.
We needed to start changing our mindset. We needed to look at what I call a scalable response. We needed to start cleaning for health. As the risk of a pandemic or an infectious disease goes up, we change our frequency of sanitation and disinfection. We look at different types of PPE that we need to have on.
We know that this particular virus is an airborne virus but we also know that surfaces matter. We know that hand hygiene matters. We often hear that routine cleaning needs to be done right, but nobody defines that routine cleaning, except the cleaning industry.
We are doing hygienic cleaning, we are cleaning for health and in that, cleaning surfaces with disinfectants is necessary. Focussing on high touch points is absolutely necessary. That’s where the cleaning industry can make a significant difference. They can clean for health and take care of those high touchpoints and surfaces.
What kind of cleaning chemicals and equipment will be effective against this variant?
What I try to talk about during our training programs such as GBAC Star Facilities and GBAC Star Service Providers is risk assessment. Part of that risk assessment is what is approved in your country. In the United States, we have a list of chemicals that are approved for use for COVID-19. So I encourage whoever it may concern to look at the chemistries that are approved in your country. If you don’t have a list, then go to the WHO and see the chemistries that are approved.
Speaking of equipment, we have all heard about electrostatic sprayers and they are wonderful when used appropriately. What we are finding is that training on the equipment is almost as important because if you’re not using it correctly, it may be ineffective. So look at the sprayers or other equipment that you may have, read the label of the disinfectant that you are using and make sure you are following that label. If a disinfectant label says it needs to have a dwell time, make sure it is being adhered to. If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that more technologies are coming forward and we are learning more about disinfectants. Some of them have really low dwell times and for a restaurant, that’s really important. You want something that’s safe for individuals, has a low dwell time and there you have it.
What infection control measures can hotels take to combat this variant?
Hotels or hospitality in general have a unique challenge from the standpoint of gaining customer trust. I think that visibility of your cleaning staff is important. I also realize in some countries, it is difficult right now to even have cleaning staff. Make sure you are very transparent with what you are doing and answering questions for your clients. Another concern that has come up is the staff. What kinds of things do you need to have in place for your staff that are going into these rooms - wearing masks, gloves (to name a few) and being sensitive to your staff’s needs.
If your staff is 100% vaccinated, tell your customers that it is 100% vaccinated if it’s approved in your country to let that information be known. I would say that the procedures and controls that you’ve put in place for the other variants like Delta are very appropriate for Omicron. However, our mentality in training our staff should change from “cleaning for aesthetics” to “cleaning for health and aesthetics.”
I see a lot of times when I go into different places that they’ll spray something and wipe it immediately and we know that dwell time isn’t really there. So the verification and validation of your procedures being followed is really very important.
What infection control measures can hospitals take as Omicron spreads?
I am really sensitive with regard to our healthcare facilities. I was part of team Ebola and when we received the first Ebola patient in the United States, I actually led a team that helped provide the support to our clinical staff and also outside the clinical area for contamination control. We had to hear about the technology “patient centered care”. It’s about infection prevention and control and it's extremely important but when the risk of the pathogen starts going up, the risk of our providers becoming ill and then being pulled out of the matrix of being able to provide care, you need to shift that thought process to “provider centered care”. How do I protect the providers so they are there tomorrow to provide care for the patients. Looking at the protection factors for our providers is something that we really need to pay close attention to in our healthcare organizations.
What kind of protection you are providing to the respiratory protection, for infection prevention and control, what are the procedures being followed when you are going from one patient room to another. Are you practicing hand hygiene like it should be practiced, are you making appropriate use of gowns in between rooms, what are the procedures for cleaning and disinfecting the room while the patient is still there to bring the bioload down, what are the steps being taken to disinfect high touch points like bed rails, washrooms, tv remotes, etc. Make sure you identify these high touch points and routinely and hygienically clean those areas.
What measures can shopping malls and airports take to combat it?
Their procedures may be a little different because of the number of individuals that are coming in. They might not be able to control the status of the individual. So look at those high touch points in your facilities, make sure you have signage, enforce and encourage the use of masks in these facilities. Make sure the hand hygiene stations are readily available. Make sure you pay attention to those highly visible areas and high touch points and frequently clean, disinfect and sanitise those areas.
As consumers that are going shopping or travelling, you have a responsibility to practice hand hygiene, wear a mask, practice social distancing and if you are planning to visit any immunocompromised family member for the holidays, get tested before you meet them. In this way, you can protect others who may be more vulnerable than you are.