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There May Not Be Enough Well-Trained Workers To Clean Up Where Coronavirus Has Been

Tony Vassiliadis, the head nighttime custodian at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., demonstrates an electrostatic sprayer. During an actual cleaning, he would he would wear gloves and an N95 mask.
Tony Vassiliadis, the head nighttime custodian at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., demonstrates an electrostatic sprayer. During an actual cleaning, he would he would wear gloves and an N95 mask.

Financial markets have tumbled, manufacturing has slowed, retail is suffering and some states are seeing a jump in unemployment claims all due to the global coronavirus pandemic. But one business that has been in high demand is professional cleaning.

"One of the things that this pandemic is showing us is that we don't have enough trained individuals," says Patty Olinger, executive director of the Global BioRisk Advisory Council, a division of the International Sanitary Supply Association trade group. Many professional cleaners aren't trained in the kind of precautions and procedures necessary to safely combat the coronavirus. "This is potentially a gap in our industry," she says.

Properly sanitizing buildings can require specially trained and experienced professionals as well as advanced equipment, such as electrostatic sprayers, which look like they were yanked off the set of Ghostbusters.

"You just wanna keep moving," says Tony Vassiliadis, demonstrating how to use the misting gun attached by a hose to a tank on his back. He's a custodian at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass.

At the start of flu season, the town bought an electrostatic sprayer for every public building. Now Vassiliadis and other cleaners are using them to guard against the coronavirus.

Sanitizing surfaces in Wellesley feels like an urgent, albeit risky, task after the parent of two students in the district tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The school system planned to close for two weeks before Gov. Charlie Baker shuttered schools statewide until April 6.

Vassiliadis says he is trying to stay calm. "If I get it, I get it," he says. "I'm going to go to the doctor and see what they can do."

He says he sprays his keys at the end of every shift and hopes he has built up a strong immune system over eight years on the job.

But the custodians here take other measures, too, says Joe McDonough, the town's facilities director. "Our custodians always wear gloves, and they'll wear a [ N95] mask." There's a lot more to cleaning thoroughly and safely than just grabbing a mop and broom, he adds.

"We spend two days training them on blood-borne pathogens, asbestos awareness, the Right to Know Law," McDonough says. Federal and state versions of Right to Know laws require people to be notified of potential hazards, like the coronavirus, in the workplace.

But simply knowing about a risk isn't necessarily the same as knowing how to minimize it, which is why the Global BioRisk Advisory Council is developing a new certification program that Olinger hopes will become industry standard. She says she imagines plaques on the walls of hotels, for example, signaling that housekeepers are trained to use best practices to stop diseases from spreading.

That could be reassuring for guests and housekeepers, alike. Right now, hotels are making good-faith — but largely informal — efforts to protect employees, says Carlos Aramayo, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 26, a union representing thousands of hospitality workers in Greater Boston.

"Some properties are starting to give people 5-minute breaks every hour to wash their hands, doing some trainings on how to wash your hands," he says. "I know that's a specific thing that's come up."

Other hotels have gone so far as closing temporarily, including a Marriott in Boston that hosted a meeting tied to the majority of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts. Marriott says it's responding to the outbreak with the help of a Minnesota-based professional cleaning company called Ecolab.

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