On March 16, 2020, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented a webinar to food industry professionals focused on issues pertinent to COVID-19 and food manufacturing facilities. The webinar was organized by the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance, a coalition of food industry trade groups.
Amanda Cohn, MD, acting director for the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) and deputy incident manager for CDC’s COVID-19 response, strongly encouraged participants to check the CDC website for daily updates and guidance. She emphasized that the broad CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19 apply to all states, but how states choose to implement the guidance may vary based on the particular epidemiology of the disease in each state and its local vulnerable populations.
While emphasizing the need to keep up to date with CDC and to work with local and state health departments, Dr. Cohn, along with Jonathan Yoder, MSW, MPH, the water emergency preparedness coordinator at the CDC, underscored that much remains unknown about COVID-19 and news of its impact changes rapidly.
In this evolving situation, they offered some guidance on specific questions asked by webinar participants.
How long can the virus survive on surfaces and inanimate objects, such as stainless steel surfaces, plastics, and fabrics?
According to Yodar, limited data on the virus suggests that it appears to remain active hours to days based on the particular type of material. [Data from a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17—a day after the webinar—indicated that the virus remains stable for several hours to days: up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.] For aerosols, the virus is stable for up to three hours. Yoder emphasized that the virus on surfaces can easily be inactivated by using common household cleaners or disinfectants.
Is there a risk of contracting the virus via a food product or packaging surfaces?
Saying there is little data on this, Yoder added that the risk outside of person-to-person spread is considered low; he also underscored the broad recommendation that people wash their hands after handling food or food packaging.
What are the recommendations for disposing of personal protective equipment from production workers either exposed to or diagnosed with the virus?
Yodel referred participants to the CDC COVID-19 website on solid waste disposal and said the guidance is no different than what is generally recommended.
Should employees avoid handling currency or other types of paper?
Yodar said there are no current guidelines for handling currency, but reiterated that frequent hand washing and not touching one’s face is recommended after touching surfaces.
Do you have an indication on time and temperature lethality for this virus? Is it sensitive to heat or cold?
Like other microbes, this virus is sensitive to heat, according to Yoder, adding, for example, that boiling or pasteurizing should inactivate it. However, given the different types of manufacturing facilities with varying types of processes, he couldn’t provide more specific approaches to using heat to inactivate the virus.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19 at a facility and has used personal protective equipment, such as a face mask or respirator at work, what is the recommendation for cleaning procedures?
Dr. Cohn said to rely on local health investigators or a company’s occupational health clinic to assess the situation.
What are the recommendations if a person in a food producing facility tests positive for the virus?
Yodel said this depends on state and local guidance, but that, generally, there would be an assessment of risk to others, some level of closing and cleaning the area the person worked in. Companies should work with their local health departments to determine who needs to be monitored if exposed to the ill person.
What happens if an employee at a manufacturing facility comes into contact with a person who tests positive to the virus or has symptoms?
In this situation, Dr. Cohn said that the person who is exposed to an infected person may be asked by public health officials to stay home for 14 days and any cleaning recommendations would only occur if that person became ill.
What are the recommendations for employees who traveled but do not show illness?
According to Dr. Cohn, employees returning from countries with level 3 travel advisories, such as China, Iran, Japan, and Europe, should self isolate at home for 14 days. Upon returning from travels, she urged people to heed the advice from the Department of Homeland Security or quarantine staff in airports or after cruises and hoped that employers would support those recommendations.
Time to Work Together
Dr. Cohn underscored a collective role for businesses and organizations to help support the community during what she termed one of the hardest public health issues facing the U.S. “One of the important things to start highlighting is what people can start doing for each other during this time and how our businesses and organizations can help support the community through this,” she said. Community mitigation strategies are part of this, she said, and include practicing careful personal hygiene, reporting any symptoms, and leaving work with any onset of symptoms.
“This is where I strongly recommend companies look to local and state health departments for guidance,” she said, such as spreading out employees in work space, staggering work time, and reducing gatherings and interactions of persons. For example, for employees on assembly lines, guidance could be to clean work stations between shifts. Given the current and projected spread of the disease, Dr. Cohn said that she is “starting to shift to say we need to minimize and mitigate the social and economic and burden that these community mitigation factors will have on individuals” and “we’ll rely on organizations and businesses to help with that.”
For questions regarding issues such as what to do if an employee comes in contact with a person infected with COVID-19 or what procedures to follow to clean personal protective equipment used by a person exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19, CDC advises food manufacturers to to seek and follow guidance from local and state health departments.