Disinfectant room sprayers. Commercial cleaning companies. Online learning programs. Re-hydration beverages.
While the spread of coronavirus continues to unnerve Americans, some companies are experiencing a boom in business — even if there’s no guarantee their products will stop the spread of the virus.
School leaders and parents have been particularly eager clients, especially for cleaning services and products. One Ohio school district recently spent $16,000 on room-cleaning machines. A Florida district spent $45,000 on disinfectants. Some Wisconsin districts have inquired about locally made machines that blast an aerosol fog to decontaminate rooms — priced at $90,000 to $110,000 per unit.
Given the concern over students’ health, there’s been little to dissuade such actions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued only basic guidance to schools and daycare facilities about the importance of washing hands, routinely cleaning surfaces, talking with local health departments, and shutting down if they have a confirmed infection.
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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was pressed by an Oregon lawmaker in a hearing Thursday about why the Education Department couldn’t better advise schools when to shut down and how, exactly, the facilities should be cleaned.
“We’ve had in the last five days a six-fold increase in cases,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
If the rapid pace of infections continues, he added, “schools are going to be affected, and they’re all going to be asking the same questions and you’re in a position to help make sure they understand the answers.”
DeVos said her department is passing along information from the CDC.
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The U.S. death toll hit at least 14 over the weekend — 13 in Washington state and one in California — while Colorado, Nevada and Maryland all reported their first cases of the virus. There were more than 370 confirmed cases nationally as of Thursday night.
Most patients who have died have been elderly, with underlying health conditions. But in a rapidly evolving landscape, anxious school leaders and parents have made all sorts of reflexive purchases.
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Amazon was sold out of hand sanitizer as of Wednesday. Electrolyte beverage company SOS — which recently targeted advertising to parent-focused websites about flu- and virus-induced dehydration — has seen sales increase 23% in the past week, a spokeswoman said.
Companies specializing in cleaning services or products that disinfect surfaces have become particularly visible — despite the fact the CDC believes COVID-19 is more readily spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets.
Stratus Building Solutions, a commercial cleaning company with locations nationwide, said they’ve seen a spike in inquiries from schools in the Seattle area, and also in the Carolinas. North Carolina confirmed its first coronavirus case this week.
A spokeswoman for Stratus said most of the new inquiries and clients are businesses, gyms and offices seeking deep cleaning and disinfecting services. She said cleaning fees can range from $500 to $1,500 and up, depending on the size of the facility.
The marketing for some products includes hard-to-verify claims.
One manufacturer advertised its disinfectant in a news release as “a silver bullet against human coronavirus, common flu and other germs.” The company said its PURE Hard Surface product is “powered by patented silver ion-citric acid molecules.”
The president of Altapure, a company in suburban Milwaukee that makes machines that spray a disinfecting fog into rooms, said facilities are right to consider paying six figures for his product.
“I’m surprised school systems haven’t taken greater steps to provide a safe place of employment, especially when dealing with germs and bugs that could kill you,” said Carl L. Ricciardi, president of the company.
Ricciardi said Altapure received inquiries from a school district, ambulance company and a hospital on Wednesday — and that was just over the lunch hour. They primarily sell to hospitals, he said.
“The peer-reviewed literature shows the hand-method of cleaning is sub-optimal,” Ricciardi said. “The gold standard ought to be to employ the technology that gives you the best possibility of eliminating pathogenic bio burden.”
How can people tell what products work against COVID-19?
Infectious disease experts have been reluctant to weigh in on the effectiveness of certain products, given the political sensitivity around the global health crisis.
Lawrence Muscarella, president of LFM Healthcare Solutions, an independent healthcare safety company, said customers should ask manufacturers if their products have been proven to kill COVID-19, the current strain of the virus under scrutiny.
“You’d want a label claim from the manufacturer that says: ‘Kills COVID-19,'” Muscarella said. “If it just says ‘kills coronavirus,’ ask if that includes COVID-19.”
In addition, Muscarella echoed the CDC, stressing that people should follow the cleaning product’s directions for use. The agency has linked to a list of cleaning products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use against the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak.
Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 2013 book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” said it’s likely that people are purchasing a lot of unnecessary items.
“Fear and anxiety cause us to take actions, like sharing news and buying products, even if those actions aren’t always useful,” Berger said.
“What’s tough in this case is that there’s a lot of political pressure on the CDC to either say or not say certain things,” he added. “I wish it was all just based on science, but it’s not.”
Online education companies see a boost during coronavirus outbreak
With millions of schoolchildren around the world holed up at home because of the outbreak, and an increasing number of schools closed in the U.S., online education companies have also received a surge of new inquiries.
A spokesperson for University of the People, an online, nonprofit university, said the company has seen a 200% increase in applicants from China compared to the previous term, and thousands more website visitors from Japan, South Korea and Italy since the coronavirus outbreak was first reported.
Online education behemoth K12 — which powers the platform used by many of the country’s online charter schools — has offered free help to traditional school districts that need to move their instruction online temporarily because of coronavirus-related shutdowns.
As of this week, K12 had received inquiries from school districts in Michigan and central California, said Scott Durand, senior vice-president for learning solutions.
Durand said their intent is not to start marketing to traditional schools, “or to drive growth because of something awful.” But he said K12 would be well-positioned to help districts temporarily move their instruction online for a few weeks or a month.
“We’re not interested in taking advantage of anything,” he said. “It’s an option. You don’t have to take it, but we’re here. We are legitimately trying to do the right thing for students.”
Contributing: Jayne O’Donnell, USA TODAY; Max Londberg, Cincinnati Enquirer; Mark Johnson and Joe Taschler, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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