Cleanup crew fights COVID-19 on Navajo
If you have been wondering who has been doing the decontamination work for COVID-19-exposed facilities for the Navajo Nation government, you need look no further than a small company out of Tennessee called Southern Solutions Environmental.
Twenty-six year old Scott “Ike” Hawkersmith inherited the environmental cleanup services company from his father, an environmental scientist, who passed away suddenly in an accident two years ago. Hawkersmith said he was looking to take the 20-year-old company in a new direction when the coronavirus pandemic hit and he realized there would be a large need for decontamination and remediation services.
He started looking into what type of industrial products were being used to disinfect spaces contaminated with COVID-19 and came upon one that was already being used in China and Italy called Decon7, “D7” for short, produced by Decon7 Systems LLC out of Scottsdale, Arizona. “This is the only thing that actually kills coronavirus,” said Hawkersmith. He said the team at Decon7 Systems that sells D7 for commercial use was “top notch” and provided comprehensive training for how to deploy the product in line with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
“They were really serious about it and they were actually in Wuhan when the virus first started to break out,” said Hawkersmith. “They had microbiologists on the ground out there.”
Hawkersmith decided he wanted to help get Decon-7 “on the ground” in the United States and invested over a half million dollars in the equipment and supplies SSE needed to begin doing that. Then Hawkersmith and his youthful, 12-person staff, including SSE’s officers, realized there was a critical need and an opportunity to help the Navajo Nation with decontamination services, so they headed West in early June.
“It was kind of a natural transition for us once we saw the severity of the pandemic on Navajo,” said SSE Senior Vice President Collin Anderson. Anderson said it was really striking to learn how many people on Navajo didn’t have water or electricity.
“We thought we could make a difference here,” said SSE Chief Operating Officer David Barnes. “We arrived at the right time.” They were connected with the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Health Command Operations Center, offering SSE’s “Cleanup-Coronavirus” services pro-bono for one month. “We wanted to get to work immediately and start helping as much as possible,” said Anderson. “We were the only ones willing to come out here and volunteer. There weren’t a lot of other companies willing to do that.”
Barnes said the need for decontamination services on Navajo was even greater than SSE or the Command Center had anticipated. After their first month, the SSE team continued working with the Command Center with the expectation that they would eventually be paid out of the Navajo Nation’s CARES Act funding allocated for facility sanitation and decontamination.
“We are mentioned in the budget that was submitted,” said Barnes, “We have an agreement with the Health Command.” To date, Hawkersmith says his team has decontaminated an estimated 750,000 square feet on Navajo.
“We’ve been all over the Nation at this point,” said Anderson. Hawkersmith said the market rate for decontamination work can run anywhere from $1 to $1.50 or upwards per square foot, but his company offered the Navajo Nation a discounted rate.
Their assignments, which have included government buildings and offices, COVID-19 isolation sites, community centers and distribution centers, and more, come directly from the Command Center through logistics liaison Dustin Leyva, said Barnes. Neither Leyva nor Command Center head David Nez responded to a request for comment from the Navajo Times.
According to SSE’s “Cleanup-Coronavirus” website, D7 kills surface and airborne coronavirus and other pathogens by penetrating the layers that surround COVID-19 and killing the virus by destroying its RNA.
Hawkersmith said for each decontamination assignment they do two rounds of D7 fumigation, which eliminates the virus, along with other pathogens, including in hard-to-reach spaces like heating ventilation and air conditioning ducts.
“We use compressed air to aerosolize and atomize the disinfectant into an airborne solution, which is particularly helpful in this case because we’re learning more and more that COVID-19 could be airborne,” said Anderson. Anderson said D7 is delivered in two ways, by “atmospheric bombardment,” where the aerosolized product disperses through the air and covers all surfaces, and direct surface spraying for highly touched areas and focused applications.
While it only takes up to 10 minutes of contact with D7 for pathogens to start breaking down and neutralizing, it’s full cycle is eight hours, after which it degrades back into water, he said. “It does not leave a toxic residue,” said Anderson. Hawkersmith says his main concern is making spaces habitable again after a COVID-19 exposure.
“My job is to decontaminate and keep the people of the Navajo Nation safe,” he said. “We’re health-care workers trying to respond to the pandemic. We just want to do the work.” However, he cautions that even after a space is decontaminated, if an infected person walks in afterward, it can become contaminated again.
He urges everyone to go by CDC guidelines and continue to wear a mask. Hawkersmith confirmed the company can do spot checks for bacteria and viruses after a decontamination is complete if a client requests that. “We have the ability to work with laboratories that can provide that testing service and demonstrate efficacy,” said Hawkersmith.
Hiring Navajo workers
Hawkersmith said once the payments come in for the work the company has done on Navajo, he wants to expand the operation and hire Navajo workers. “The team should be getting a lot bigger soon,” said Hawkersmith. Anderson said SSE will be looking to hire at least 30 people from the Nation.
“We want to expand and open facilities that will be lasting, but we can’t operate in that kind of manner without the money coming through,” said Barnes. “We’re waiting like the rest of the Navajo Nation and all the other contractors that might be involved are waiting. Once that wait is over, we can do a lot more things.”
Asked if he and his workers were ever scared doing the decontamination work, Hawkersmith said that because they go by strict safety guidelines and wear full protective gear, they have a level of confidence that they are safe. Anderson said workers wear full body suits, full-face respirators rated for biological contaminants, double-layer cloves and sealed rubber boots.
“The virus can’t go through the suit,” said Hawkersmith. “If you abide by our companies in-house rules as well as CDC regulations and OSHA requirements, you’ll be safer.” Anderson said, regardless, it’s natural to have a little bit of fear when you’re working with an invisible pathogen.
“What we’ve been doing, we know is a good thing and the right thing to do so we let that guide us through,” said Anderson. Hawkersmith said fortunately nobody on his crew has contracted COVID-19. “Nobody has had a problem,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”
‘We are here to help’
While SSE has been committed to working exclusively under the direction of the Command Center leaders per their request, Hawkersmith said in the future they would also like to expand their decontamination services to include small businesses and homes on the Navajo Nation.
“These are the places we want to get if we want to make a difference,” said Hawkersmith. “My vested interest is ensuring the Navajo Nation succeeds.” Barnes said SSE does want to “reach out to the whole community” to let people know about their work, which is part of why they contacted this reporter.
“We want the Diné people to know that we are here to help and we’ll be here as long as it takes to deal with this pandemic,” said Barnes.
Anderson added that while their work has been focused on decontamination, they also do cleaning with D7 as a preventative measure. He said the more people you have moving about in an area such as an office building, the more frequently you should be disinfecting as a way to proactively fight the virus. “Especially places that have poor airflow from either lack of ventilation or outdated ventilation, those are your more prime targets,” said Anderson. “The less airflow there is the more likely it’s going to have pathogens.”
Hawkersmith said at this point abiding by safety measures and cleaning are the only things that you can do to protect yourself from COVID-19. “My message is clean, clean the Nation,” said Hawkersmith.