Cleaning up after Ebola in US: The scope and costs

This past April—when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was just beginningI attended the 20th Congress of the World Federation of Building Service Contractors in New York City, the first time in 20 years the meeting has been held in the U.S. From all over the world, Building Service Contractors (BSCs) gathered to discuss industry standards, best practices, equipment, chemicals, and changes on the horizon.

One of the emerging topics was pandemic cleaning and medical cleaning.

The Cleaning Guys hazmat cleanup company are seen here as they sanitize the apartment where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was staying before being admitted to a hospital in Dallas.
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The Cleaning Guys hazmat cleanup company are seen here as they sanitize the apartment where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was staying before being admitted to a hospital in Dallas.

Naturally, Ebola was part of the discussion. After all, these contractors clean the hospitals, medical clinics, stores, restaurants, and office buildings we visit every day. It is the BSCs that must develop the plans to clean infected areas, along with CDC and hazardous materials specialists.

So how prepared are we?

CDC has published guidelines and procedures to try to answer questions, combat misinformation, and allay some fears. But the question remains: Can the government and cleanup crews stay ahead of Ebola?

A look back at the last week proves how difficult it is for CDC to access the apartment of an infected patient for cleaning, all due to a bureaucratic mess. Now think of all the policies, procedures and legal considerations involved in quarantining an area.

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What must be cleaned? Perhaps a better question is, What don't we need to clean? Imagine retracing your every step from the time you get out of bed to the time you go to sleep. How many places have you been? How many people did you have direct contact with? Each of these questions leads to an area that could be contaminated, which must be cleaned or, worse, quarantined.

In the cleaning industry, we have a saying: "High work before low work." Which means, start with cleaning the ceiling vents, working down to the floor. That is where we start. Highly infectious and deadly, Ebola is not the flu, so everything in a room must be disinfected. This leads to our next question: Who cleans and how?

"The true cost must take into account indirect costs and consumer behavior. Ask yourself, what is the impact on a local restaurant where an infected patron may have dined? Would you willingly visit a clinic or hospital if you knew a patient with Ebola was being treated there?" -Dirk Bak, president of SDQ Janitorial and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

Turn on the news and you will see the proper cleaning attire required: full fluid-resistant suits, masks, double gloves, and more. Every touch point must be meticulously disinfected with a medical-grade germicidal disinfectant. Supplies and equipment must be properly disposed of after usage. That is where the real danger comes, because even with proper safety equipment and supplies, cleaners are at risk and must remain vigilant. The minute a cleaner becomes complacent about their safety, their safety is at great risk. You can do it 99 percent right, but the 1 percent could be lethal.

Imagine if, after a couple of hours cleaning an infected area, you are gowned up and you need to go to the restroom or it is time for lunch. How do you start un-gowning so you do not accidentally touch your face or another area? These masks are not comfortable. You must control your urge to scratch the itch to the head or face.

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In fact, when you browse through photos of people wearing masks, you see many placed on people's heads, just like your sunglasses or headband. Why? They protect you but are not necessarily there for comfort. Who wants to spend a lot of time in these areas? If this is what you do for a living, imagine how many disposable suits, masks, gloves, and rolls of tape are required.

The true costs

All of this comes at a hefty price. For example, the labor rate for this type of professional cleaning can be $50 to $75 an hour per person, often with a minimum of 10 hours per project. The safety equipment alone—disposable suits, gloves, masks, and goggles—may run upward of $100 per usage. And then there's the cost of chemicals and cleaning solution, which can run upward of $40 to $60 per case.

Who pays for this? In the case of CDC and other governmental agencies, that's easy: taxpayers. The Ebola fight in West Africa could cost the U.S. up to $750 million over the next six months. In the case of businesses, costs will likely be incurred by building owners and tenants.

But the true cost must take into account indirect costs and consumer behavior. Ask yourself, What is the impact on a local restaurant where an infected patron may have dined? Would you willingly visit a clinic or hospital if you knew a patient with Ebola was being treated there? Consumers have choices, and fear or anxiety can play into those choices. Monetarily, that is a deadly notionnot just to the small business, such as a restaurant or dry cleaners that had to shut the doors, but to the employees who could lose their job.

By Dirk Bak, president of SDQ Janitorial and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

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