By Michelle Danyluk and Ben Chapman
COVID-19 has changed so much about how we operate. Managing COVID-19 amongst workers is extremely important. Its impacts on the health of employees can have catastrophic effects when operations are shuttered by health departments if the virus spreads out of control.
This has happened in many food and agriculture sectors. There have been hundreds of clusters of illnesses on produce farms, in processing plants of all kinds and in restaurants. We have seen over and over businesses losing 10, 50 or 100 percent of their staff to illness or quarantine. Labor loss like that when crops need to be harvested and packed or processed can be devastating.
SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is primarily transmitted person-to-person. The virus is carried through moisture droplets (like spit and mucus) and released into the air through coughing, talking, singing, yelling, sneezing, etc. Viral particles in these moisture droplets in the air can attach to cells in a healthy person, infect, replicate and be dispersed again to infect other healthy people. Particles usually only travel a few feet, which is why physical distancing of at least 6 feet is recommended. This is also why wearing protective equipment such as a mask or cloth face covering is so important.
While there have been social media posts and confusion about how effective face coverings are, there is a strong scientific foundation both in the laboratory and in practice that demonstrates how these tools can reduce transmission risk. It is paramount to have a strong strategy in the citrus industry to provide masks, require their use, train on how to properly wear them and follow-up/enforce use.
Used masks and cloth face coverings should be handled carefully with the assumption that they are contaminated with the virus that causes COVID-19. Face coverings should be removed without touching the inside. They should be immediately placed with dirty laundry or stored in a plastic bag until they can be properly cleaned. Wash your hands after handling a used face covering or use hand sanitizer if hand washing is not an option. If possible, wash your face after removing a face covering.
Cloth face coverings can be uncomfortable to wear. A proper fit is tight over the nose, mouth and chin. Shaving is not necessary for cloth face coverings or surgical masks. Cloth face coverings can help reduce disease transmission but wearing one does not provide absolute protection. Cloth face coverings should be worn whenever interacting with someone outside those you live with.
Social distancing in the grove, packinghouse and processing plants is a difficult task to manage. In some cases, it’s not possible — especially in break areas and restrooms, around handwashing stations, on buses and in other areas where workers naturally congregate. This makes having effective procedures around practices like wearing masks or face coverings even more important.
See more information on COVID-19 management.
Michelle Danyluk is a professor at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety Extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
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