Guest article by Stephen Lewis
Five seconds might fly by to us, but to microbes, it’s plenty of time to hitch a ride on fallen food. Of course, try telling that to a hungry kindergartener whose ham sandwich hit the cafeteria floor.
No, really: Tell him. After all, his life could depend on whether he bites back into his lunch. Far too many kids are getting sick or worse thanks to rising strains of bacterial and viral diseases.
Not surprisingly, little kids are at higher risk of becoming virus-magnets. And in the spaces we (and our children) frequent most — like the kitchen and bathroom — the floors beneath our toilets and kitchen sinks are teeming with bacteria. According to WebMD researchers, the kitchen floor and toilet floor were ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, for having the most bacteria per square inch.
Further, Johns Hopkins Medicine posits that, in addition to the estimated eight yearly colds elementary children are likely to get, they’re also prime candidates for the flu. And the flu doesn’t stop with one victim; it can quickly grow into a mini-epidemic, as seen in February in Knox County, Tennessee. There, a rampant flu outbreak led schools to close down for four days to disinfect and give pupils extra healing time.
Taking off for deep cleaning isn’t isolated to that one case. The same happened last season to Hazen, North Dakota, schools, where 80 kids were absent in one day. And in Pflugerville, Texas, a high school closed for deep cleaning after 30 percent of students called in sick.
In other words, the spread of germs is a national problem that can start with something as innocuous as retrieving and eating a lunchbox staple.
Making positive health and safety changes in schools
When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied its most recent influenza numbers for 2018, researchers noticed a troubling trend: Pediatric deaths had risen to 172 for the season, exceeding record levels from just five years prior. As the Chicago Tribune discussed in a related piece, the true figure could wind up being higher.
What makes kids such flu magnets? Many aren’t vaccinated. In fact, of the flu-related fatalities, four-fifths could be attributed to lack of flu vaccine exposure. Another problem is simply that youngsters’ immune systems aren’t mature enough, so they’re a more vulnerable population.
Of course, the flu bug isn’t the only troublemaker infiltrating places like schools and daycares. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (the MRSA “superbug”) can survive on unsanitized surfaces far longer than five seconds. In fact, this drug-resistant bacterial strain won’t die of its own accord for months, scientific tests show.
Yearly national statistics implicate MRSA in tens of thousands of infections and 11,000-plus deaths. While kids with MRSA tend to rally faster than adults, 2 percent die and 25 percent develop long-term health issues.
Kids swap MRSA easily in communal situations where touching one another, sharing items (even articles of clothing), and generally crowding together are common. Though MRSA can be destroyed, it takes specific kinds of cleaning with disinfectants to wipe it from existence.
Think those top two germs are the worst of the bunch? Don’t forget about E.coli, salmonella, botulism, other foodborne illnesses, and related pathogens that are creeping into new populations ahead of climate change.
According to the CDC, 1 in 6 people will come down with mild or major food “poisoning” after being exposed to a nasty pathogen due to inadequate food preparation or contaminated utensils. Like the flu and MRSA, complications related to foodborne illness are on the upswing, almost doubling in frequency from 2014 to 2017.
Finally, even the common cold plays a part in school hygiene. Though rarely fatal, it’s the cause of many sick days and “presenteeism,” whereby a student is at school physically but not mentally. One Yale University study found that although cold-carrying germs could be removed from surfaces like desks, they came back a few days later like unwanted houseguests. It’s unfortunate, because the same research discovered most desks are scrubbed clean only once each semester.
Creating a hygienic learning atmosphere
Aside from beefing up desk-cleaning protocols or closing the school for a few days, school and daycare administrators can evict unwanted microbes, bacteria, viruses, and other nasty bugs by following advice from the International Sanitary Supply Association. In its “Value of Clean” analysis, ISSA suggests moving from a merely cost-centered janitorial routine to one that doesn’t cut corners or wind up in inconsistent cleaning.
By developing a strong, comprehensive infection control plan, administrators can decrease absenteeism from flu by up to 80 percent, according to ISSA, cutting schoolwide sick days among the student population by nearly half. Getting started happens by following a few simple tips:
1. Clean all touchable surfaces frequently.
Whiteboards, floors, tables, doorknobs, light switches, and even gym or recess equipment must be constantly disinfected. Conduct a walk-through of your facility to gauge the areas that deserve more than an occasional spray-and-wipe, which isn’t the same as deep sanitization. Make keeping the facility spotless a team effort to keep costs in check, but remember: The price of an outbreak can far exceed the price of prevention.
2. Foster safe kitchen and food practices.
Beyond having kids and adults wash their hands or use a cafeteria hand sanitizer station before and after meals, be certain all kitchen workers are certified to handle and distribute food. Learn the government’s food safety practices and guidelines, and share them with everyone who needs to know, including volunteer parents and community members. Doing so will make foodborne illnesses less apt to occur due to ingredient mishandling at schools.
3. Maintain a dry facility.
Viruses love humidity. Take away their preferred breeding grounds by installing dehumidifiers and maintaining an HVAC system with filtration solutions. When cleaning textile-covered surfaces like carpeted libraries or fabric-covered cubicles, opt for a dry polymer cleaning system that uses little moisture. You’ll remove many of the hiding places that bacteria enjoy, and you’ll extend the life of your textiled surfaces.
4. Keep up with HVAC maintenance.
Good air quality leads to healthier students, workers, visitors, and vendors. Monitor your HVAC system to ensure you aren’t simply recycling stale, germy air. A bonus of being diligent in this area: Your constituents with asthma and allergies will breathe easier while they teach, learn, mentor, and grow.
The item should be thrown away, not given a chance to make anyone sick. Over time, children will learn that five seconds is an eternity for a pathogen and, ultimately, not worth the risk.
Stephen Lewis is the technical director at milliCare, where he manages all equipment, methods, and products for the floor and textile cleaning company. Stephen, a certified senior carpet inspector and an IICRC master textile cleaner, has proudly served milliCare for almost 30 years.