The flu season has always been a concern for businesses. Workplaces are overtaken by illness that seems to hit one or more team members at a time, leaving them short-staffed and under-productive. With flu season fast approaching, there is growing concern among health professionals of a “twindemic” – an overlap of the annual flu season and a resurgence of COVID-19 cases this fall and winter.
Now, with the second wave of the pandemic seemingly in full swing in certain areas of the country, business owners and facility managers need to be more vigilant than ever before about protecting workplace occupants.
While both influenza and COVID-19 cause respiratory disease, knowing more about their similarities and differences and how each can spread will help to implement the necessary measures to protect against virus outbreaks and transmission in commercial facilities.
- Both viruses are predominantly spread via respiratory droplets or contaminated surfaces, so physical distancing policies designed to limit COVID-19 transmission are also effective against influenza.
- The same public health measures, such as hand hygiene and good respiratory etiquette, are important actions that everyone must follow to prevent the outbreak and transmission of either virus.
- From a scientific perspective, both the influenza and COVID-19 viruses are categorized as enveloped viruses, meaning that the individual viral cell has an outer wrapping or envelope.
- Influenza has a shorter incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) and a shorter serial interval (the time between successive cases).
- Most people with influenza are contagious for about 1 day before they show symptoms and during the initial 3-4 days of illness (but many remain contagious for about 7 days). With COVID-19, however, it is possible for people to be infectious about 2 days before symptoms appear and to remain contagious for at least 10 days after. Also, with COVID-19, if someone is asymptomatic or their symptoms go away, it is still possible for them to remain contagious for at least 10 days after testing positive.
- COVID-19 is more contagious than flu and can quickly and easily spread to a lot of people and result in continuous spreading as time progresses.
- While the range of symptoms for the two viruses is similar, the fraction resulting in severe disease is higher with COVID-19 than with flu infection.
- There are multiple vaccines produced annually to protect against the 3 or 4 flu virus strains that scientists anticipate will circulate each year, but currently, there is no approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
Some tips for protecting your workplace
There is no doubt that there is heightened concern regarding the infection risk for both COVID-19 and the flu as businesses continue to return to work. The following outlines some simple but effective guidelines that will help protect workplaces:
Routine cleaning and disinfecting
The key to preventing the spread of infectious disease in commercial spaces is to maintain a thorough and consistent daily cleaning and disinfecting routine. It is not yet known how long COVID-19 lives on surfaces, but early evidence suggests that like the flu virus, it can live on objects and surfaces from a few hours to potentially days. As enveloped viruses, both the flu virus and the COVID-19 virus are relatively fragile, so standard cleaning and disinfecting practices should be sufficient to remove or kill them. The key is to clean and disinfect regularly.
Clean, disinfect, and fortify high-touch surfaces
Professional commercial cleaning and disinfecting of “high-touch” surfaces and objects is essential. Germs and viruses are spread by human touch, so any surfaces and objects in the work environment that are often interacted with require frequent cleaning and sanitizing. These areas include computer keyboards, phones, door handles, faucet taps, banisters, desks, countertops — anywhere that frequent human contact occurs that can contribute to the spread of infectious disease. Depending on the traffic in your workplace, high-touch areas should be cleaned and disinfected 3-4 times a day, if possible.
This cleaning frequency may not be achievable for some, so it is highly recommended that the application of an antimicrobial surface protectant by a professional commercial cleaning company be considered. These antimicrobial protectants create an inhospitable environment for microbes and protect surfaces between routine cleaning and disinfection. Evidence-based studies conducted by independent laboratories, including peer-reviewed studies in the American Journal of Infection Control, support the protection claims of residual antimicrobial products. Once application and drying are complete, residual antimicrobials add a layer of protection to help prevent contaminants from adhering to the surface.
Remove waste regularly
It’s important to empty and sanitize wastebaskets daily because personal items such as tissues and paper towels can harbour bacteria, germs, and viruses.
Vacuum and clean carpets
Regular vacuuming and deep cleaning of carpets helps reduce the spread of germs, viruses, and pathogens, and improves the indoor air quality in your facility — especially important when dealing with airborne respiratory infections.
Keep office chairs and upholstered furniture clean
Ensure that office chairs and upholstered furniture are regularly cleaned and disinfected. Upholstered furniture can also hold bacteria and viruses and therefore requires deep cleaning and anti-bacterial fabric protection on a regular basis.
Additional workplace protocols
Heightened cleaning and disinfection schedules will only work if additional workplace protocols are followed:
- Remind employees of the importance of staying home if they are sick; send home employees who show symptoms of illness.
- Emphasize that washing hands often with soap and water is one of the best ways to avoid transmission of emerging pathogens. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% alcohol.
- Implement work-from-home protocols for your employees whenever possible.
- Encourage respiratory etiquette (e.g., coughing into one’s elbow, immediately disposing of used tissues) and hand hygiene by all employees.
- Provide disposable alcohol-based wipes for employees to clean and disinfect commonly used or high-touch surfaces between uses.
- Advise employees to follow safe travel protocols.
- Mandate that employees who are not ill but who have family members with COVID-19 must notify their supervisor and other employees in the workplace.
A final word
Remember that infection control in the workplace begins with thorough cleaning followed by disinfecting with products approved by Health Canada. It is imperative that label directions and Health Canada guidelines are followed carefully. Facility management teams with questions about cleaning and infection control are advised to seek advice from a professional commercial cleaning service.
A professional office cleaning company can help business owners and facility managers develop a healthy workplace program that will keep their facility clean, safe, and healthy during this flu and COVID-19 “twindemic”.
Gavin Bajin is the national director for ServiceMaster Clean, Canada. He and his team support 70 franchises, delivering janitorial, commercial carpet cleaning, disinfection services and specialty cleaning services from coast to coast. To find out more, visit servicemasterclean.ca.