Cleaning staff on front lines of virus defense


For faculty, staff, researchers and students who remain on Pitt’s Oakland campus, the housekeeping and custodial staff are a big part of protecting them from the coronavirus COVID-19.

“Our cleaners, they are definitely one of our frontline defenses. They are doing a phenomenal job,” said Dan Fisher, assistant vice chancellor of operations and maintenance for the Department of Facilities Management.

Custodial staff remain at full strength and in all buildings, although in a more limited capacity in buildings with fewer visitors. Critical research facilities are still functioning, as are the Public Safety and Facilities Management buildings and several Pitt housing units.

The Department of Environmental Health and Safety, led by Jay Frerotte, has reached out to students, researchers, custodial staff, housekeeping, trades people, and the Pitt Police to reinforce the CDC guidelines for social distancing, cleaning and other safety practices.

Maintenance staff tasked with cleaning any room where someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus COVID-19 has stayed overnight have been given specialized training and will wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Frerotte said they also are waiting as long as practically possible to go in and clean those rooms to minimize the risk.

Molly Stitt-Fischer, University biosafety officer, said that, “the guidance for cleaning

general areas from the CDC is very similar to what the housekeepers and custodial staff would normally do. There's not really extra PPE required for that.” She said this holds true with most spaces where people don’t stay overnight, including common break rooms and bathrooms.

Crew are though paying special attention to high-touch areas, such as doorknobs and elevator buttons.

If someone who hasn’t been on campus for several days tests positive for the virus, the risk to campus is very low, Frerotte said. But if someone still working on campus were to test positive, Stitt-Fischer said the next step would be to determine “what was their work environment like and what activities did they do.” For instance, if the person was in an office where others just passed through, then the risk of exposing others is not high.

“Worst-case scenario, we would just close the office as possible and just let it sit for a couple days because the virus will dry up on surfaces and die quickly,” Stitt-Fischer said, which would lower the risk to staff who have to clean the area.

“We truly appreciate our custodial group. We are naturally very concerned for their safety,” Fisher said, and so have put in place non-typical practices — such as no two employees working in close proximity, discontinuing communal lunches and suspending all group meetings. “All in a drive to make sure we are protecting our staff.”

He said cleaning staff are using gloves and eyewear where needed, washing hands frequent, and they have refilled more than 400 hand-sanitizing stations on campus over the past four weeks.

The custodial staff is normally split between housing and other facilities, Fisher said, but the latter group has been pitching in to get certain dormitories ready for those students who remain on campus to move into single-person rooms with individual bathrooms. There are about 400 students who are living in Pitt’s dorms now, scattered among different buildings to keep them isolated. Those students are then responsible for maintaining their own rooms and bathrooms.

Lothrop Hall, which Pitt has opened for UPMC staff to stay in, is being cleaned by workers from the hospitals, Frerotte said.

Lastly, Fisher said, if you need to get into a building, call Facilities Management, which is vetting that process. Facilities managers will verify the need through a dean or department director and coordinate with Pitt Police to provide access.

“We’re being pretty strict about that,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to keep people away from campus and follow the governor’s orders.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042. Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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