New anti-COVID-19 program training workers to sanitize

HARLINGEN — You may not have heard of the local education nonprofit, or know the Texas A&M engineers or the Hollywood actor involved, but this unusual team is helping businesses provide a safer environment in the era of coronavirus.

The Cameron County Education Initiative, the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and actor RJ Mitte, a Cameron County resident, have spearheaded a new project to teach workers how to sanitize at a professional level.

The online program for Cameron County businesses is free, funded by a grant obtained by Workforce Solutions Cameron.

“We started it because RJ Mitte, who’s a friend of the family and he lives in Brownsville, has cerebral palsy,” said Rita Hernandez, president of CCEI, speaking of the “Breaking Bad” actor who played the role of Walter White Jr. “So he is on the list of those most likely to get it and get it badly.

“So we were talking and saying we need to raise the standard of clean,” she added, “so from that came this whole movement, this program we created here in cooperation with A&M and RJ Mitte, called The New Standard of Clean.”

Hazmat training

Hernandez turned to Mark Posada, assistant agency director for strategic and education services for the engineering extension service known as TEEX. He has worked with Hernandez and the Port of Brownsville in the past.

What Posada did, along with A&M engineers, is devise a program based on what his extension service does a lot of — training workers in chemical plants and elsewhere on how to deal with hazardous materials when it comes to cleaning.

It took a few tweaks, but A&M engineers created a new training program based on their “hazmat” training — 200,000 people a year worldwide use their program — and applied it to minimizing the possibility of COVID-19 contamination at our local stores, shops and other businesses.

“When they put out the funding opportunity for COVID, we said, well, this is a great chance to take what we have, what our knowledge is in relation to hazmat, hazardous material, and provide that throughout the state,” Posada said. “And so we put together, quickly, a short course on that geared toward custodial staff and maintenance staff.

“But the other thing, too, what we heard a lot from businesses were, how do we do this if I’m a manager, if I’m a supervisor? What do I need to look for?” Posada added. “When it comes to cleaning, there’s a difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing.”

So far about two dozen businesses have signed up for the classes, Hernandez said. The course is two hours for employees and four hours for managers who will be supervising these workers.

“The difference between our program and everyone else’s is that we train those who are in charge of cleaning, and ensuring cleaning, as well as the leaders who oversee them,” Hernandez said. “Because with the fidelity of the process it doesn’t make sense to just train those that are cleaning. You have to train everyone to operate better.”

A small card on the dash informs the vehicle’s owner that the car has been sanitized Tuesday at Luke Fruia Motors in Brownsville.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Those at risk

RJ Mitte, 27, is best known for his portrayal of Walter White Jr. in the Emmy Award-winning AMC series “Breaking Bad.”

Like his character, he too has cerebral palsy, and is using his growing influence in the film industry as a spokesman for United Cerebral Palsy and Shriners Hospitals for Children, as well as a member of the Screen Actors Guild disability committee.

“I have cerebral palsy, right? I have this condition,” he said. “It’s fine gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination. It’s a neurological condition. It happens at childbirth and initially part of it makes the body in some areas weaker than others, the lungs in particular.

“When I was a kid, I would get pneumonia six months out of the year and it would almost kill me every year, and I would fight it and then turn around and get it and get sick again,” he added. “Right now with this pandemic, there’s a lot of people in this world that are losing access to public spaces, to their lives, really, not just public spaces, but overall losing mobility in this world, and for me I believe we need to put better implementation and better plans in place to actually protect people.”

To help accomplish that, Mitte says, is the training program in sanitization which he believes will restore consumer confidence in local businesses, provide a boost to the economy and empower business owners to take back their space from the virus.

“It’s a virus, and a very serious virus,” he said. “But it’s not so much COVID killing people as pre-existing conditions. And there’s a lot of people that have pre-existing conditions that can’t afford to get COVID.”

Learning to co-exist

Rita Hernandez, President of The Cameron County Education Initiative, surveys a classroom of students Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Brownsville. Hernandez is one of the organizers spearheading the “New Standard of Clean” program to help train businesses in sanitation against COVID-19.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

For Mitte, Hernandez and Posada, the New Standard of Clean program is not a cure but a step on the path to learning to live with COVID-19, whether there is an eventual vaccine which is effective, or not.

“Back in the day, viruses have taken many children and many adults over the millennia,” said Mitte, whose father is presently recovering from coronavirus. “This was one of many viruses that we face on a daily basis. We still have bubonic plague, we still have SARS, we still have Ebola, we still have swine flu, we still have bird flu.

“Viruses don’t go away — we adapt. As humans we grow with the virus, we grow with the bacteria, we grow and our bodies become stronger and we sometimes forget that,” Mitte added. “I find if we can make our environment healthier and safer, and provide tools for businesses, provide tools for communities to raise knowledge, and finding new ways to protect our businesses, and that can in effect trickle into our homes in how we clean and sterilize in our lives.”

Hernandez said any business owner interested in signing up for the New Standard of Clean program can email her at rhernandez@myccei.org or contact CCEI at 956-641-4800.

She thinks people are focusing too much on COVID-19 statistics and not enough on ways to, if not eradicate it, to learn to endure it.

“Some people from a podcast called me yesterday and they’re all screaming about the numbers and the numbers and the numbers,” she said. “I said, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if the numbers are right or wrong, we all know the numbers are too high. We’ve got to just figure out how to navigate through this.’”

rkelley@valleystar.com