As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc around the world, cannabis business owners must do their part to protect their people, patients and consumers. The first step is to have a thorough understanding of the virus itself, as well as how it is contracted.
Nomenclature is always critical, especially with so much conflicting information being circulated, so let’s begin by understanding the basics.
Viruses and the diseases they cause often have different names. This happens because there are different purposes for naming a virus versus a disease. It is not uncommon for people to know the name of a disease, such as measles, but not the virus that causes it, rubeola. Another familiar example of this is HIV and AIDS. HIV is the virus that causes AIDs.
Viruses are named based on their genetic structure. This is done to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) is responsible for naming all viruses.
Diseases are named to enable discussion around prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment. The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for the naming of diseases through the International Classification of Disease (ICD).
Coronaviruses are a large family of zoonotic viruses. This simply means they are viruses that are transmitted between animals and humans that cause respiratory illness in humans. Historically, there have only been two zoonotic coronaviruses: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MARS).
On February 11, 2020, the ICTV announced the name of this new virus as “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).” That same day, WHO announced the name of this new disease as coronavirus disease or COVID-19. Because the name “SARS” can cause unnecessary fear in certain populations, WHO is referring to the virus as “the COVID-19 virus” or “the virus responsible for COVID-19.”
On March 11, 2020, the head of the World Health Organization declared the situation a pandemic, rather than an epidemic. While this sounds and is alarming, it is important to understand the differences between an outbreak, an epidemic and a pandemic.
An outbreak is a sudden rise in cases of a disease in a particular area.
An epidemic is a large-scale outbreak.
A pandemic is a global epidemic.
While pandemic is a scary word, it is important to understand that it has nothing to do with the severity of the illness. It simply means that a disease is spreading widely and rapidly. Labeling the situation as a pandemic signifies to governments around the world to activate preparedness plans and take emergency precautions to protect the public. These precautions include travel and trade restrictions, like we saw in the U.S. recently, prohibiting all travel to and from Europe for 30 days.
The second step to preventing coronavirus is to understand how it is transmitted. COVID-19 is primarily spread from person to person. This happens in a number of ways:
– Between people who are within about six feet of one another.
– Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
– Touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.
While the CDC is still working to determine exactly how long the COVID-19 virus can remain viable on surfaces, we do know that the SARS and MERS viruses can live on surfaces up to nine days. It is for this reason that effective, preventative, hygienic practices are implemented and maintained immediately.
Even though there are still unknows, there are tried and true preventative measures that can be taken to assure that the cannabis industry is not contributing to the situation. For example, the food industry already combats another disease called norovirus, which causes 60% of all foodborne illnesses. Importantly, 70% of norovirus cases are caused by infected food workers and lack of good hygiene practices. This is important because the practices that are used to prevent the spread of norovirus are the same for preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Appropriate responses from cannabis businesses can make a huge impact on the spread of this disease and should be taken very seriously. It is critical that we are taking proactive measures, instead of being reactive. Taking a “wait and see” approach to COVID-19 is not the right way to handle the situation. It is important for employees and customers to see your organization is taking proactive action, even if that is a simple company communication that states the executive leadership team is monitoring the situation and assessing the risks within your organization. Transparency and communication are key.
FOCUS recommends all cannabis businesses take the time to identify and assess the risks specific to their business so that they can devise effective strategies to mitigate and control those risks.
The first and easiest place to do this in within your company’s sanitation procedures. How effective are they? Are employees adequately trained? Do they understand the importance of correctly implementing cleaning procedures? Are disinfectant agents purchased in large quantities and mixed in-house? If so, are they mixed to the required concentration levels? Are they labeled, dated, and disposed of before they become ineffective?
Coronaviruses can be inactivated by using disinfectants that contain 62-71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite. A mixture of 70% household bleach and water can also be used. The shelf life of these agents should always be monitored and out of date mixtures should be disposed of immediately.
If your cannabis business hasn’t done so already, today is the best time to do some additional environmental sanitation and disinfection. Be sure all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace like countertops, doorknobs and workstations are effectively cleaned. Follow that up with developing an enhanced sanitation schedule for all high traffic areas of your facility. This is also a great time to retrain employees on your workplace hygiene procedures. You may want to nominate someone to be your company’s health and safety champion by assigning them the responsibility of monitoring the timeliness and effectiveness of how your hygiene practices are being implemented. You could start an employee recognition program to publicly recognize employees who are going above and beyond in their sanitation efforts. Not only will this better engage employees, it is also a terrific way to show your patients and customers that you are committed to protecting their health and safety.
One simple way to improve sanitation practices is by providing disposable wipes that can be used frequently on highly trafficked surfaces prior to each use. Assure you have plenty of no-touch disposable receptacles around in convenient places as well.
In addition to environmental hygiene, personal hygiene practices are also a critical component of successful preventative measures. Employees should be instructed to clean their hands often with alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer should also be adequately supplied in all busy areas, and ensure sink area supplies (soap, disposable towels) are consistently available. Soap and water should always be the preferred method for hand sanitation, especially if hands are visibly dirty.
Sharing information on appropriate personal hygiene measures is another simple step that can be taken to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The CDC has handwashing handouts as well as information on cough and sneeze etiquette available that can be posted or distributed directly. It is important not to overlook the importance of sharing this information and providing these resources to customers and vendors, as well as employees.
Attendance and sick leave policies greatly contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. Interestingly, the U.S. is one of only two Economic Cooperation and Development countries in the world that doesn’t mandate paid sick leave. As of today, 1 in 3 U.S. workers have zero paid sick days. This is largely because only 10 states have mandates related to providing paid sick leave. These states include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island, although the mandate requirements differ greatly within these states. Data shows that after the implementation of mandated paid sick days, infection rates spread at a 40% lower rate than where paid leave is not provided. If you are cannabis business that does not offer paid sick leave, you can pretty much guarantee that employees will ignore public health warnings and come to work while ill.
Even if your cannabis business does not currently offer paid sick leave, you can still do your part to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by implementing temporary policies during this pandemic. Employers need to be flexible and ready to think outside the box during this time, as well as prioritize decisions around health and safety. Paying for employees to stay home sick will always be less costly than an entire organization falling ill. Never mind the cost of the brand damage that can occur if patients and consumers are knowingly put at risk. Cannabis business that operate in medical markets must be even more dedicated to preventing the spread of coronavirus, as the majority of their patients already have compromised immune systems.
This article shares insight on some of the easy to implement preventative measures. However, we encourage all operators to dedicate some time to assessing the individual risks in their businesses and develop creative strategies to control those risks. Dispensaries can encourage patients and consumers to utilize delivery services through their marketing and promotions. Encouraging larger purchases via discounts and specials will also help limit exposure by minimizing foot traffic. Regardless of what policies your company decides to implement, trust is key. Employees, patients and consumers must feel confident that your cannabis business is doing everything it can to protect them.
Lezli Engelking is the founder of FOCUS (the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards), a nonprofit established in 2014 that addresses the many shortcomings in quality, safety and consistency that have become evident with the explosive growth of the global cannabis industry. FOCUS exists to help assure the cannabis industry has the necessary protections in place for the health, safety, success and welfare of everyone. This autonomy fosters a principled, objective organization that protects end users and acts as the much-needed neutral, nonpartisan bridge between industry and regulatory bodies. More information is available at www.focusstandards.org.