Working from home isn’t an option for busy biohazard cleaning crews, called out to disinfect the new coronavirus from Seattle workplaces.
“Crazy, very crazy,” Theresa Borst, president of Bio Clean Inc., said about last week.
Borst, whose company’s website motto reads, “When the worst happens … we’re here to help!,” is a pioneer in a niche industry suddenly mainstream.
Bio Clean typically responds to disasters, biohazards, meth labs and trauma scenes.
Now Borst is scheduling cleanups for the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, amid the usual calls about suicides, homicides and other grim happenings.
By last Thursday, Bio Clean had already worked a dozen cases, several of which were confirmed by testing, and called on a Portland-based company “to back us up.”
But Borst’s work reaches beyond merely removing the virus from work and gathering places. Amid saturating media coverage and high anxiety over COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, sometimes her job is removing not the virus, but the fears over it.
“Our caseload is definitely up. I think the biggest issue we have is talking with people and trying to take the hysteria out of it, and bringing them back to logistics,” Borst said.
Much of the time she spends with callers focuses on whether they actually need her service and understanding: “Was there someone, in fact, there who had the virus and was in their office space or retail space, or if they’re just scared from the media.”
Borst remains one of the few Seattleites whose work life hasn’t changed much, apart from the volume of calls.
“We go in and treat all areas as if it’s contaminated with the worst virus known to man,” Borst said. “We’re not changing any protocols, because we’re cleaning to the nth degree” already.
Borst has been in the business for 22 years, and the Hollywood film “Sunshine Cleaning” is based on her life. (“Loosely,” she said. Yes, “Two girls started the company. No, we did not burn down the house, and no, we did not sleep with cops and none of us are divorced.”)
Bio Clean employs 15 field workers. Much like hospital staffers, before entering a contaminated place, the workers don Tyvek suits, with disposable shoe covers, glove liners and hoods. They also wear respirators, which protect against both infection and the virus-killing chemicals.
“The whole nine yards,” Borst said.
Her teams use backpack sprayers, foggers and other equipment to apply disinfectant.
Workers have trained on hazardous waste response, personal protective equipment, respirators and blood-borne pathogens, among other subjects.
“I don’t think this is for the typical janitor,” she said.
Borst said the key is to remain diligent.
“You’re not going to see bloody prints,” Borst said. “This is invisible to the eye. It’s more tedious. You have to make sure you stay focused on the task.”
Last week, as call volumes spiked in Seattle, Borst called on Rapid Response Bio Clean, a Portland company and, like Bio Clean, a member of the American Bio Recovery Association, an international association that certifies biohazard technicians and companies.
The association works something like a network for rapid response, said Thomas Licker, its president. Last week, as schools and offices across the region shut down for cleaning, it was the Seattle area calling out for help.
Across the nation, “everybody’s on edge,” Licker said of his organization’s members last week. “Most of us are stocking up on EPA-registered disinfectants for coronavirus.”
Surfaces are of some concern.
Preliminary information and studies of other coronaviruses suggest SARS-CoV-2 can persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days, according to the World Health Organization.
It may be possible to touch a surface and then your own mouth or nose and transmit the disease, though it’s “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The epidemiology doesn’t really support surface transmission at this time, not that it can’t happen,” Licker said. “The key is high traffic touch points.”
Biohazard companies are familiar with other coronaviruses, Licker said. They can be killed.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which registers disinfectants and pesticides, last week published a list of antimicrobial products for use against the novel coronavirus.
“Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product,” according to an EPA news release, which urges users to pay attention to how long disinfecting products should remain on surfaces.
“It’s not an instantaneous kill like people think,” Licker said.
The problem, Licker said, is that disinfecting doesn’t stop the sneeze on the bus or the cough at the office.
“Unfortunately, with something like this, you’re not going to disinfect your way out of it, especially because it’s passing from human to human,” Licker said.
“The customer has to understand even after we disinfect, it’s only as good as the minute we leave it,” Licker said, because asymptomatic carriers can easily recontaminate workplaces and other communal spaces.
“In a lot of cases, we’re peace of mind.”