At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we were sanitizing groceries, surfaces, packages and more. Do we still need to?
The sales of disinfecting sprays and wipes skyrocketed in recent months as the public scrambled to more frequently disinfect commonly touched surfaces and items that could spread the coronavirus. We were told to wipe down groceries, packages, doorknobs, counters, toilet seat handles ― you name it. People were worried that contaminated objects could be a significant way of contracting COVID-19.
But as time went on, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarified that transmission through surfaces might not be as common as originally feared. While disinfecting objects can still help curb the transmission of contaminated droplets, COVID-19 largely spreads from person-to-person contact — meaning that disinfecting your personal items will not totally protect you from contracting the coronavirus.
“Relative to other things that one might want to do, such as wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance from other people, the importance of disinfecting surfaces after being outside is not the highest of priorities,” said David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
“I’m not going to say there is zero risk ― we know that this virus can be transmitted from surface to surface. But if you think through the amount of virus that’s likely to be on many of these surfaces relative to the amount of virus that is in one cough or sneeze, the surface is relatively small compared to the size of the cloud of particles that someone can generate with one cough or one sneeze,” Dowdy said.
While other precautions are more crucial to preventing COVID-19, David Mushatt, chief of adult infectious diseases at the Tulane School of Medicine, encouraged the public to continue disinfecting high-touch surfaces in addition to following all the other CDC guidelines.
Mushatt noted the value of the “Swiss cheese model” when considering COVID-19 risk reduction. The “Swiss cheese model” essentially means that when something bad happens, it is rarely due to one mistake. It’s more commonly a series of things that were done improperly — like the multiple holes in Swiss cheese. And the way to fix the problem is by fixing the system, or plugging the holes, at all levels. To get past this pandemic, we need to plug the holes by hand washing, social distancing, mask-wearing and disinfecting, Mushatt said.
“It’s rare for one change in infection control to lower infection rates. Usually, it’s trying to improve every step that you can identify,” Mushatt said. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter how much of the virus is spread by door handles or how much is through the air. It’s a matter of addressing all of those areas because we may never know, we still don’t know exactly how the flu is spread.”
So the disinfection of surfaces will still help protect you from contracting COVID-19. Below, infectious disease experts share the most important areas to clean, along with the most important precautions to take, to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.
Disinfect digital screens and surfaces.
We’re arguably spending more time on our phones, computers and tablets than ever ― items that even before the pandemic were known for their germy surfaces. Now they possess a slight risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“As far as common surfaces to clean during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most obvious surfaces are the most touched surfaces such as cellphone screens and covers,” said Avisheh Forouzesh, founder of Advanced Infectious Disease Medical LLC in New Jersey.
She also suggested disinfecting your computer mouse, touchpad and keyboard, since “they are highly touched surfaces throughout the day and we are prone to touching our face, nose and eyes constantly.”
“If we could keep the surfaces that are repetitively touched throughout the day disinfected, then there is less chance of transmitting germs or viruses if we accidentally touch our eyes, nose or face,” Forouzesh said.
Consider cleaning your home’s main doorknob more often.
People have been urged to use hand sanitizer when they are out and about and can’t wash their hands. But it’s not a perfect solution ― and not everybody does it.
“If you come back from shopping and you clean your hands when you get out of the car with hand cleanser and you touch your doorknob, if nobody else has touched the doorknob, then you probably don’t need to do anything,” Mushatt said. “But if you have kids and other family members coming and going, then it may behoove you to wipe down the door handle.”
He recommended disinfecting your doorknob once or twice a day if other people in your household or apartment complex are touching the same surface.
Disinfect the high-touch surfaces inside your car.
From day one of the pandemic, many have used cars to run essential errands while potentially coming into contact with the virus. Forouzesh warned that the high-touch surfaces in vehicles can hold virus-carrying particles that can be transmitted from our hands to our eyes, nose or mouth.
“We may get in and out of the car multiple times a day after having come into contact with other perhaps contaminated objects or surfaces,” Forouzesh said.
She suggested that drivers disinfect the door handles, the steering wheel and the radio inside their car. She also noted that disinfecting these surfaces is more important if the car is used by multiple members of a household.
And if you’re a rider in a car that isn’t your own ― aka an Uber or a Lyft ― be sure to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands after getting out. Wear a mask and don’t touch your face during the ride as well.
Wash your hands frequently.
Dowdy stressed that the surface people need to be most aware of is their hands, which is where the majority of surface-based virus transmission occurs.
“It’s great to disinfect surfaces that you come into contact with, but the most important surface, by far, is your hands. Keeping your hands clean is going to do far more than disinfecting your cellphone, your glasses, your doorknobs, your grocery cart handles and your keys altogether,” Dowdy said.
He added that he doesn’t want to discourage people from disinfecting surfaces, but that the amount of transmission prevented by disinfecting personal items is small when compared to ― you know this by now ― washing your hands, maintaining distance from others, not attending large gatherings and wearing a mask.
Be sure to disinfect surfaces more diligently if someone in your home has COVID-19, has symptoms of the virus or is awaiting test results.
The importance of disinfecting increases when someone in your household has, or may have, the coronavirus.
“If somebody in your house is sick, you have to be more diligent,” Mushatt said. “If they’re a person who might have COVID or are waiting for a test to come back, then you have to clean more.”
If someone is being tested for COVID-19, he said, you should assume they have the illness until they get the results. Moving forward with life as normal when test results are pending could expose other members of the household to the virus.
“If you have a high suspicion that someone in your household has typical COVID symptoms or they have a known exposure, then they really should be sticking to their rooms, and when they come out, they should wear their mask and clean their hands — they need to take some personal responsibility,” Mushatt said.
“But the people they’re living with can also help and take on additional disinfection,” he continued. That includes disinfecting all risky surfaces throughout the home — counters, doorknobs, remote controls, light switches — more frequently. Mask-wearing and distancing should also be enforced.
“It’s all about risk mitigation. You can’t eliminate risk but you minimize it and when you do that, you’re stacking the odds in your favor,” Mushatt said.
Most importantly, don’t just stress over surfaces. Follow all CDC guidelines to reduce your COVID-19 risk.
“People who do a lot of this disinfection feel a false sense of security as a result. You think, ‘Because I’m doing all of these things to keep all of the surfaces in my home, my car and my pockets clean, I can’t get this disease.’ And that’s just not true,” Dowdy said.
“We are all at risk and every day that we go out into society, we need to be thinking, number one, could I have this disease even if I don’t have any symptoms? Could I be infecting other people? And number two, that the best way for me to avoid getting this disease is to avoid getting in other people’s space,” he continued. “Wiping down your sunglasses, your keys and your cellphone is not going to prevent those events from happening.”
Dowdy stressed that the public must maintain social distance, avoid crowds, wear masks and wash their hands. Disinfecting surfaces is a helpful piece of the puzzle, but not the most crucial step in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.