Saturday, December 3, 2022 Dec 3, 2022
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Ebola: A Costly Mess

How a small company got screwed when it agreed to help stop the nation’s first contagion of the deadly virus.
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The night before Dallas County called, executives of the Fort Worth-based CG Environmental–Cleaning Guys had a conversation. They’d heard that the emergency response team to their east was having a hard time finding a contractor to decontaminate the Vickery Meadow apartment of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in the United States. 

It would be a difficult, high-profile job. Duncan had spent at least three days with symptoms in that two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment. There was still evidence of vomit and fecal matter in the bedroom and bathroom. For Cleaning Guys vice president Brad Smith, the job essentially meant putting a price on the risk to his guys’ lives. “For us to put a number on this cleanup, it’s very difficult,” he says. “You go and clean up an oil spill for $2,500. You don’t go clean up Ebola for $2,500, I’ll tell you that. Or this company doesn’t.” But the 22-year-old company had done all sorts of difficult work for North Texas agencies, even contracting to clean up crime scenes with HIV-contaminated blood splatters. So when Dallas County called, the Cleaning Guys went to work.

They sent 15 employees to the site, where four people were on state-ordered isolation: Louise Troh, Duncan’s fiancée; her son; and two nephews. The Cleaning Guys crew worked in groups of two in hour-long shifts. Everyone wore a Level B hazmat suit, which provides head-to-toe protection—sealed facial protection, respirator, hood, attached booties, triple-layered gloves. All the equipment was later destroyed. 

“The family was inside, in normal civilian clothes, and we go in wearing protective equipment, and they’re sitting there wondering, ‘Why are they in this and we’re not?’ ” Smith says.  

Everything but the family’s computers, an old Bible, and some scattered papers was triple-wrapped in a biohazard bag and packed into 55-gallon drums. Those then went inside 95-gallon drums, which were later incinerated. The county relocated the family to an undisclosed gated community. Next came total decontamination of the apartment. Rip out the carpet, bleach the cabinets, remove the toilet, run chemicals through the ventilation system. “It’s probably one of the cleanest apartments in town now,” Smith says.  

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital hired the Cleaning Guys to disinfect six hospital rooms where Duncan was treated. And, after 26-year-old nurse Nina Pham was diagnosed with the virus, the Cleaning Guys went to her M Streets apartment at the county’s behest. They decontaminated the exterior of the apartment—a common laundry room area, the handrails, the doors—anything that she could have touched. 

Then they were told to stand down. Two new contractors were replacing them, Louisiana-based OMI Environmental Solutions and Protect Environmental Services, from Irving. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took the lead in hiring for any Ebola-related cleanup going forward. It has its own go-to contractors. The Cleaning Guys simply wasn’t one of them.  

Smith says the company took a financial hit after agreeing to handle Duncan’s apartment. Customers they’d had for decades were telling them not to come back for 30 days, waiting out the virus’s incubation period. Adding insult to injury, ABC Channel 8’s Byron Harris aired a report suggesting that the Cleaning Guys had been replaced because they weren’t doing the job properly.

“We want to play nice in the playground, so we’re not gonna throw darts,” Smith says. “We’re gonna do our job. Our company is based on integrity.”