By Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News
It was a presidential campaign, but the dirtiest part comes on inauguration day.
As Joe Biden raises his right hand to take the oath of office at noon on January 20th at the Capitol, a team of specially trained cleaners will raise their hands to disinfect the White House.
The executive mansion will be thoroughly cleaned following two COVID-19 outbreaks this fall, which resulted in President Donald Trump and his staff and family members being infected.
The departure of one president and the arrival of another is always a fast-paced but highly dubbed ballet behind the scenes of White House staff and moving crews.
But this year is different. The shift means more than moving the oval office and putting new clothes in bedroom closets: it means disinfecting from top to bottom in the middle of a pandemic. Biden, who takes office as the oldest president in U.S. history at age 78, is at high risk of complications from the virus.
Therefore, the General Services Administration will thoroughly clean and disinfect all doorknobs, toilet handles, light switches, banisters, telephones, elevator buttons, computer keyboards, and other items in the 55,000-square-foot mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But can such a large building get completely clean in just five or six hours?
Experts say that with a large enough team and preparation time, this shouldn’t be a problem.
K. Mark Wiencek, chief microbiologist at South Carolina-based Contec Inc., which sells detergents to hospitals, said GSA cleaners should focus on the rooms last occupied by Trump employees because the virus on surfaces doesn’t last long can survive. Cleaners should wear masks and gloves to protect themselves and not to introduce germs.
He recommended replacing the air filters and using disinfectants to kill viruses.
The GSA said it is already cleaning the offices of the east and west wings of the White House with disinfectant on a daily basis.
GSA officials said they did not expect any difficulties with the move and promised that all furniture and surfaces would be cleaned. “The GSA will thoroughly clean and disinfect the building spaces between administrations and ensure that everything is up to standard,” a spokesman said in a statement.
According to OP Almaraz, a West Covina, Calif. Disaster relief expert and president of Allied Restoration, who has cleaned dozens of businesses following suspected COVID cases, it is important that the detergents remove the cleaning chemicals 10 minutes before wiping the surfaces leave.
“With a large enough crew, a professional disinfectant company could apply disinfectant to the entire White House in six hours,” he said. It is important that the crew “pay particular attention to points that can be touched frequently, such as table tops, door handles and light switches.”
As long as the cleaners have an organized schedule for each room, Almaraz doesn’t see them having trouble getting ready before the Bidens move in at the end of the day.
Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor Property Restoration in Michigan, said cleaners would need to be trained and in fully ventilated suits to clean the White House in an afternoon.
“It’s a Level 3 Clean,” he said, noting that the building is in need of the most intense service due to confirmed COVID cases. That means throwing away everything that doesn’t need to be left for the Bidens, including pillows and bedding. He said books needed not only to be bound, but wiped on all sides. He recommended cleaning the pipes and ventilation systems as well.
Jack Shevel, co-founder of San Diego disinfection company Zappogen, said that since COVID-19 spreads by airborne transmission, it would be best to disinfect it with an electrostatic sprayer or fogger filled with a disinfectant that is designed to kill was developed by airborne pathogens. This covers a large area more easily than just wiping surfaces.
“To really quickly and thoroughly disinfect all of these rooms, they should be sprayed with a fine micron mist that can reach all crevices and surfaces evenly,” he said.
Still, White House cleaners must be careful to remove paintings, antiques and other valuable items before they are sprayed with disinfectant, said Ernesto Abel-Santos, professor of biochemistry at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. These items should be cleaned by hand.
Abel-Santos said a simple alcohol-based disinfectant should be enough to kill the COVID virus. Although the virus can be detected on some surfaces for days, it is usually broken down within hours. People are much more likely to become infected with droplets that are expelled when someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks.
During turnover, cleaners should focus on the most frequently used areas of the building, such as the oval office and bedrooms. “The rest can be cleaned thoroughly if necessary,” he added.
Even more important than cleaning, however, according to Abel-Santos, asking the new president and his family and employees to physically distance themselves, wear their masks, and wash their hands.
“You don’t know how many times you touch your face with your hands in a day,” he said. “If you touch a surface and then touch your face, you are more likely to get infected.”
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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.