METHICILLIN-RESISTANT Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been receiving top-story media attention. About 25 percent of Americans each year are likely affected in some manner with staph infection. And it's predicted that some 20,000 will die from MRSA, a strain of staph that is resistant to numerous antibiotics of the beta-lactam family.
It's easy to recall a similar scare a few years ago over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Years before that, stories about Legionnaires' disease were all over the news.
There's often only an appreciation for the role that campus cleaning people play when an outbreak or crisis such as MRSA, SARS, or Legionnaires' disease occurs and gets media attention. Until that time, many find it easy to question the purpose and work that cleaning people do in proportion to the money being spent on their services.
An outbreak can become a nightmare for administrators-the caretakers and guardians of higher ed facilities. There is a loss of trust and confidence by those who visit and make use of the property. It can affect the whole activity level and image of the school. But don't ignore or minimize these circumstances. There's wisdom in strong, assertive campus measures to reduce MRSA. These may require a few more dollars and extra effort, but that may seem like little when weighed against the potential liability.
How can administrators raise awareness of outbreaks of MRSA and exhibit more aggression in minimizing or preventing them, while not provoking unfounded alarm?
Proactive communication to regular users and possible visitors of a college campus is important. Given the media attention, now is a strategic time for procurement and human resources officers to reconfirm their campus's sound and responsive cleaning-maintenance programs that take into account MRSA and other potential outbreaks.
Now is a strategic time to reconfirm that campuses have a sound and responsive cleaning program.
Review protocol with the building maintenance team, especially in the more potentially hazardous areas:
Gymnasiums and related sports facilities
Public surfaces with widespread skin contact, such as stairway banisters, telephones, elevator control boards, door handles, and water fountains
Generally, achieving an environment with minimal staph or MRSA conditions should not be about increased costs. This is very low-tech. Simple bleach or bleach-related cleaning chemicals should be able to do the job.
Consider organizing a one-hour or 90-minute seminar focusing on ways to combat staph infection. If there is no capacity for this within existing campus resources, could a public health department sanitarian or an outside professional cleaning contractor put together a program and plan of action?
On a campus where there may be fear of infection, hiring a recognized cleaning contractor to "once over" the campus may help promote calm and assurance. A "detail" cleaning and sanitizing, which pays extra attention to areas or items touched by the public (especially any children who may be on campus) and a public announcement about such an effort can do a lot to build trust.
It's an opportune time for administrators to emphasize the significance of practicing good personal hygiene and sanitation all around. Without even referencing the staph/MRSA crisis, e-mail a list of simple, helpful suggestions (e.g., washing hands frequently; keeping any wounds or cuts bandaged and clean; making an effort to minimize touching public items; not sharing clothing, towels, or toiletries) to every student, faculty, and staff member. Display this information at multiple campus sites to create a positive attitude and conscientiousness about items that might have previously been considered trivial and mundane. If each campus resident was urged to adopt an affirmative attitude and to put forth a little extra effort, it would create a universal advantage, reducing the risk of spreading MRSA and helping to keep conditions safe.
The recent, highly publicized incidents of students becoming gravely ill or even dying from MRSA deserve attention. However, college administrators should recognize that panic and fear over this latest health challenge can do a huge disservice to everyone on a campus.
Robert Bertuglia Jr. is president of Laro Service Systems (www.laro.com) based in Bay Shore, N.Y., which provides educational institutions and public facilities with cleaning, maintenance, and janitorial services.