Pest control operations during the pandemic


April 10, 2020


Dr. Faith Oi and Kemp AndersonEditor’s Note: The following is Part I of a special series from Pest Management Professional Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. Faith Oi, a faculty member and director of Pest Management University at the University of Florida, and Kemp Anderson, principal of Kemp Anderson Consulting. The series is appearing on a number of industry platforms, including For our continuing coverage of this series, click here.

Pest management professionals (PMPs) are critical to protecting public health. Arthropod and vertebrate pests do not decrease because we have a human crisis. In fact, they can become a more serious problem. We are heading into the busy spring and summer season all at once, thanks to our mild winter. We are seeing an increase in rat numbers in cities such as New Orleans, La., and other major cities across the nation as restaurants close and citizens embrace social distancing and stay home.

While it is true that most healthy people infected with the virus will have mild symptoms, some of you may be asymptomatic for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and unknowingly transmit it to employees and customers. A person is considered asymptomatic if he or she is a carrier for a disease pathogen, but experiences no symptoms. Conversely, your customers may be asymptomatic and may transmit SARS-CoV-2 to you. You may then take it home to your family and infect them.

At this time, employee and customer safety is our top priority. As business leaders, it is critical to analyze the benefits and risks of being declared an essential service. You can decide what services you offer and how you offer them, but it is your responsibility to move forward under these new conditions safely. The only way to do that is for you to analyze as much credible information as possible, then adjust your business’ current standard operating procedure.

It is important to remember that SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus, meaning we have not seen this before in humans. Expect SARS-CoV-2 to behave like an invasive species introduced to a new area when resources are plentiful (that is, people without immunity) and there are no biological controls to keep the population in check or registered products to use in management (such as federally approved medications).

It is our strong opinion that businesses that are nimble and willing to adjust as new information becomes available, will survive this crisis. Some will continue to grow, and even get stronger. To get your company in that category, let’s look at some frequently asked questions:


We do not have a good answer for this question. Testing has been very limited in the United States, and the time between when people become infectious after becoming infected is not known. Note that there is a difference between a carrier being asymptomatic and the rate of asymptomatic transmission.

Another complication in determining whether someone is asymptomatic is the highly variable and long incubation period of SARS-CoV-2. The incubation period is the time from exposure of the virus to the time you show symptoms. Think about how many people you contact, including your family and friends, during the time intervals below before becoming symptomatic:

  • Approximately five days is the median time to the onset of symptoms (Lauer et al. 2020). Both the “median” and “average” or “mean” are statistics used to describe the middle of a dataset, also called a measure of “central tendency.”  The “median” is different than the “average.” To calculate the average, you add up all of your numbers and divide by the total number of numbers you have. To find the median, you line up your numbers from small to large, and the middle number is the median. The median is a better measure of the middle of a dataset when the data are “skewed.”
  • Of those who developed symptoms, 97.5 percent did so within 11.5 days (Lauer et al. 2020).
  • Some (2.5 percent) took longer to develop symptoms.


1. Wash your hands thoroughly, as if you had a pesticide on them and then some. Use CDC videos in company training.

2. Limit travel and contact with others as much as possible. Practice social distancing. Social distancing is generally defined as limiting contact with persons outside your immediate household and keeping at least 6 feet away from another person when in public.

3. Do you live with others who might be susceptible to the virus even if you are asymptomatic? For example, do grandparents or older relatives live with you? Anyone who has a pre-existing respiratory condition? Are you in any of the other high-risk COVID-19 categories? The CDC has guidance on people who are at higher risk.


The federal memo does not provide a definition of essential service; instead it is intended to “give advisory guidance on defining essential critical infrastructure workers.” Most states adopt the language issued in the federal guidance. An updated version of Guidance on the Essential 4 Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response Version 2.0 (March 28, 2020) can be found here.  Pest control is not specifically mentioned. You will find “exterminators” listed once under the Public Works and Infrastructure Support Services section. Here is the context in which exterminators are considered an essential service: “Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, builders, contractors, HVAC technicians, landscapers, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, businesses and buildings such as hospitals, senior living facilities, any temporary construction required to support COVID-19 response.”


Here is my elevator speech: “The pest control industry protects the public health and property, including critical infrastructure, from pests. We protect hospitals; assisted care facilities; nursing homes; schools; every government building; and the places you eat, work, and play from pests such as rodents, bed bugs, asthma-triggering cockroaches, medically important stinging insects, wildlife, and pests that contaminate the food supply chain. Pest control services improve and protect our health, the places we live and work, the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. We are the most effective defense against mosquitoes, ticks, rodents, cockroaches, flies, and other public health pests including those that transmit pathogens that cause zika virus, dengue, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and a host of food-borne pathogens. We also protect animal health (and yours) by controlling fleas that can carry tapeworm, mosquitoes that carry heartworm, and ticks that transmit numerous pathogens. We are often the first line of defense against invasive species such as the Formosan and Asian termites that damage not only structures, but contents, including paper documents. And we do this while putting your safety first, so you may see us doing some things differently than you are used to.”

I am proud of this industry, can you tell? Nevertheless, I highly recommend evaluating the intent of “exterminators” being included as an “essential service” as you determine what is right for you and your company.


Consider operating under the assumption that more people are positive for COVID-19 than we know. For those who might say “I don’t understand the models, so I don’t trust them.” That’s totally understandable. But most business owners already use information from models to help inform decision making. One example that most of us use daily is a weather report.

Think about models this way: They are approximations of reality, based on the data we have at the time. In the case of COVID-19, scientists agree that the dataset is incomplete and changing rapidly.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. And look at all of your options in between.

Read Part II now.


About the Author

DR. OI, a PMP Editorial Advisory Board member, is director of Pest Management University. She also is an associate extension scientist at the University of Florida, and director of Florida’s School Integrated Pest Management program. Contact her at

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