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Did you catch the flu at work? You’re not alone.

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

When Bill Ross hears people worried about viral outbreaks on cruise ships, he reminds them there is a place closer to home that they should worry about, too.

“People think about these outbreaks happening on cruise ships, they think it’s unique because they’re in confined spaces shared by a lot of people,” said Mr. Ross, an owner and operator for the last 15 years of commercial cleaning services, Anago Cleaning System, whose Western Pennsylvania office is in Bridgeville. “But offices can be like that, too.”

Multiple research studies show that is the case. Viruses are spread easily around office spaces both through physical contact with people or surfaces that have the virus on them, or through inhaling from the air — where it is surprisingly resilient — after someone sneezes or coughs.

The fortunate part of the most common and deadly respiratory virus, influenza, which has been worse in southwestern Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the state this flu season, is that it is “pretty fragile,” said Dr. Kristen Mertz, Allegheny County Department of Health epidemiologist. “General cleaning gets rid of it” from surfaces, and it only can live from 24 to 48 hours.

Which is why Mr. Ross said that every fall as flu season is about to begin, his franchisees remind their cleaning employees: “It’s cold and flu season. Let’s try to make extra effort to get to all those common-touch areas” when they’re cleaning an office.

Jeff Waddell, a cleaner for two decades and a cleaning instructor who works at the University of Pittsburgh, said the focus on cleaning to prevent flu was barely mentioned a decade ago.

But in recent years “it definitely ramps up our work on hot spots.”

Not only do they hear reminders from managers that it is cold and flu season, and they should be extra sure to use disinfectant — not just sanitizers — on commonly touched hot spots like door handles, kitchen areas and bathrooms, they also increase the number of times they clean those spots in a given day.

“We’ll go from cleaning them one or two times a day across our three shifts, to two to three times a day during flu season,” Mr. Waddell said. “And if we know [flu] is running through a particular floor, we can even clean them three or four times a day just to be careful.”

It has become a mantra among commercial cleaning services, who emphasize that the regular work they do, combined with some self-help hygiene like regularly washing hands, can help prevent the spread of viruses in the office.

“Our standard cleaning process helps prevent flu,” said Dave Erimias, Stratus Building Solutions president of the Pittsburgh region. “We make sure to get to high-contact areas: door handles, chairs, kitchen areas, bathrooms, coffee pots.”

And that’s not just a sales pitch to scare potential customers into hiring a company, or maybe getting them to clean more frequently.

University of Arizona study in 2014 found after placing a sample of a dummy virus on a door handle at a workplace, four hours later the virus was detected on half of the common surfaces in the office and on half of the office employees’ hands.

“To find that it was found on one out of every two people’s hands was surprising,” said Kelly Reynolds, lead author of that study and professor and chair of the University of Arizona’s Community, Environment and Policy department.

“I think the idea came about because we all naturally fear the person who comes to work sick,” she said. “And we asked ourselves a basic question: ‘How do these germs spread?’”

Ms. Reynolds and her colleagues have expanded their research into the issue, looking at whether or not basic cleaning and encouragement for employees to regularly wash their hands and work areas themselves would work.

That 2016 study found that the effort called the Healthy Workplace Project, which included providing hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, facial tissues and use instructions, revealed that virus detection on surfaces in two trials dropped from 47% to 19%, and 51% to 5%, and the virus detection on employees’ hands dropped from 38% to just 11%.

The most common virus

It might seem strange that such recent studies are still gathering the most basic research on this most common and deadly virus that annually over the last decade has resulted in anywhere from 9 million to 45 million illnesses, 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“After the 2009-2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, that renewed interest in understanding transmission of the flu,” said Seema Lakdawala, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics who researched the hardiness of airborne influenza in humid conditions in 2018. “Before that, we had not had a pandemic since 1968 and we had come to view flu as just another seasonal disease.”

Ms. Lakdawala, who has a doctorate in biological sciences, was the lead author of the 2018 study that found that the flu virus can stay aloft for an hour or more, and does not deteriorate in humid conditions — a long-held theory since flu is unusual in warmer temperatures — and that was because it is protected by mucus and other secretions after a sneeze or cough.

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Her research pointed to a need for better and more consistent air circulation in office spaces that routinely now don’t have windows that can be opened.

“If you don’t have fans that are perpetually moving the air [in an office space] or exchanging the air, the virus is just hanging around,” she said.

While some old buildings only have indoor to outdoor air exchanges of maybe five per hour, modern hospitals that have to worry about infections all the time, have 11 to 13 air exchanges per hour.

The cost of allowing flu to hang around is massive. Studies have found that adult influenza alone generates at least about $87 billion each year in healthcare costs, lost earnings, and loss of life, according to a 2007 study.

But exactly what role the office spaces play in contributing to infection is harder to peg down.

One 2015 study of 230 adult office workers found that the workers that were exposed to someone with a respiratory tract infection were five times more likely to report a similar infection within a week.

But researchers still don’t know whether contact with infected surface items, or inhaling the virus after a sneeze or cough of a co-worker is more likely to infect a person.

While much about transmission of the flu in an office space is still unknown, Ms. Lakdawala said common sense dictates that the virus is clearly spread around in an office.

“It’s sort of a hard problem: Where does someone get sick from?” she asked. “But where do you spend the most time? At home or at work?”

“And we know that if your office mate has the flu, you’re really likely to get the flu if you’re around them eight hours a day, five days a week,” she said. “That’s why we need more research.”

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill