On The Frontlines: Cleaning Up After The Coronavirus

Scott Vogel spends much of his time cleaning up after death—suicides, homicides, and industrial accidents, as well as more common hazards like mold or animal infestations. But now, he’s busy cleaning up after the coronavirus, technically known as SARS-CoV-2.

He is a Certified Bio-Recovery Master at Emergi-Clean, a family-owned business based in New Jersey that specializes in biohazard remediation—the removal, cleanup, and disinfection of potentially dangerous materials. And these days, sites that have been potentially contaminated with the virus.

Vogel is no stranger to working under the constraints of infectious diseases. He’s lived and worked through H1N1, SARS, and Ebola. Vogel talked to NYCityLens about what cleaning up after the coronavirus looks like. (The interview has been lightly edited).

How has COVID-19 impacted your business?

It’s so busy. We service New York and New Jersey, so we have a big presence. The first week or two in March, we got calls from a couple of businesses just wanting help. But now, we’re getting more of your critical jobs, more of your first responders—cop cars, jail cells, federal buildings. Just police stations and all the essential personnel that continue to stay open that have been affected or have a positive. They give us a call to clean and disinfect that location. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Just running around the clock, every single day.

Emergi-Clean technicians clean at a school | Courtesy of Scott Vogel

What does a job look like for you right now?

We have completed over 200 jobs in the last month. Most of those jobs consist of confirmed cases from government facilities and essential personnel work places. The first two weeks of March, we had a lot of calls. Oh my God, we were running five people on the phones every single day. Now, in the last week, we’ve been the slowest and I would credit that to more social distancing. And testing is up and getting more rapid responses, which will help us in the world of mitigation, because we’re able to respond quicker.

Does disinfection kill the virus?

For what we do, disinfection is almost impossible in a setting like this with this virus. When we’re dealing with the human disease, on a R0 [reproduction rate] valued as high as this one is, to validate disinfection is impossible. The problem is 30% [of those with the disease] are asymptomatic. This means we come in there, we clean, and we use a disinfectant. We don’t even say we disinfect, we say we use and apply a disinfectant, because of the liability. The thing is, if we go in there and we clean and apply a disinfectant, and the following day, somebody could be asymptomatic and walk in and already cross contaminate. Five seconds after we clean, somebody could come in and cough and re-infect the area.

From your perspective dealing with infectious diseases, was this pandemic something our country was prepared for?

This is something that the U.S. was not prepared for. Most companies were not, our schools were not. Why have we not been better prepared for this since the 9/11 attacks, anthrax, and then Ebola? When Ebola came around, we were training constantly. You know, we were up, we were running. There have been so many peer reviewed articles and scientific articles coming out about the “next pandemic.” And we have had Hollywood movies on it. But yet nobody has decided to build an infrastructure around it. Nobody, huh? And look at what just happened.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has now come out with OSHA 3990, which is the guidance of preparing a workplace for COVID. Remember, we should refer to the virus as SARS-CoV-2 because COVID is a disease—SARS CoV-2 is actually what we’re battling when we’re out in the field, cleaning-wise that’s what we’re attacking. And we’re only attacking the viability of the virus because technically it’s not alive.

Emergi-Clean technician all suited up | Photo courtesy of Scott Vogel

What should essential businesses be focused on at a time like this to mitigate their risk?

Businesses should be more worried about protocols on cleaning—and better cleaning, daily cleaning throughout the day—than worrying about disinfection. Some people are charging enormous rates to do disinfection. But at that point, invest in maybe hiring people who are unemployed, and get them to continue to clean the shop 24 hours a day. That’s what businesses should be focusing on, not us coming out and spraying. Because realistically, that’s not going to help as much as everyone thinks.

Think about this: what is one of the number one things the CDC tells us to do? Wash your hands for 20 seconds. So if you continue to clean in the shop or in a building, wouldn’t you reduce the risk automatically? Yes. Because it’s just like washing your hands. If we cleaned as much as washing our hands, and we kept that area cleaned, and we did our due diligence, then you would mitigate most of this risk from any contact.

How are you protecting your employees and your family?

When this all first started, I mitigated my risk. I made all my guys start wearing masks. My office staff cleaned every single day and sprayed. Employees that were outside in the field were not allowed to come into the office. We had one guy come down with the flu; it was just the flu, but it scared a bunch of employees because he did step into the office. After that, everyone took their office computers home.

Also, I ended up getting Omaha Steaks delivered for my family, and all of my employees. They’ve been working so much and they have loved ones at home too. I wanted them to have a good cooked meal so they don’t have to go out when they don’t have to. I wanted to try to mitigate their risk as well because we already know they’re at a heightened risk from working for us. So now everyone has good meals going forward!