If you’ve set foot in your local supermarkets lately, you may have noticed cleaning products appearing on the shelves again. In some cases, sales are limited to one or two items per person, and brand name items like Lysol spray and wipes may still be rare finds. Thanks to “the great fomite freakout,” (Morris as cited in Barber, 2020) sales of these cleaning essentials skyrocketed in the early days of COVID, and sales are still high as people hope to fight the virus with obsessive, deep cleaning in their homes and places of employment. But recent research says this obsessive cleaning may be unnecessary in the battle against COVID.
What has changed?
Early in the pandemic, there was a race to discover exactly how COVID-19 spread. According to Schwarz (2021), there initially was concern that droplets of saliva could fall on high-touch surfaces and, when someone touched those surfaces, they would become infected with COVID-19. Early laboratory research was done to see how long COVID could survive on various types of fomites, or surfaces/objects likely to carry infection. The virus was placed on surfaces, and the surfaces were tested. Trace amounts of the virus were detectable for varying lengths of time, sometimes for extended periods of time, depending on the surface. This led to what Dylan Morris calls “the great fomite freakout.”
Morris, a mathematical biologist at Princeton University, is a co-author of the original fomite study. He has since said the results of the study caused unnecessary panic because they weren’t helpful for assessing your personal risk of contracting the virus. In the real world, there are many compounding variables that impact your likelihood of contracting a virus from fomites. The study also didn’t provide insight into how easily the virus could get into someone’s airways and cause infection (as cited in Barber, 2020).
Schwarz (2021) claims this research is also problematic because these virus samples were not in actual saliva or mucus when they were placed on the surfaces as they would be if they were transmitted in the real world.
Neighmond (2020) describes a study by Goldman (2020) in The Lancet that explains another issue with the initial fomite research – it was done in controlled lab conditions that were favorable to viruses, and it was done with a much higher viral load than usual. Also, traces of virus particles that were found were not necessarily transmissible. Essentially, when COVID is detected on surfaces, what is found is “viral RNA,” or, what Goldman (2020) calls, “the corpse” of a virus because this is what is left after a virus dies, and it will likely not lead to an infection (as cited in Neighmond, 2020).
Unfortunately, the findings of the early fomite research were reported in the media in ways that didn’t accurately portray the subtleties of the science. This added to the fomite freakout. For more information, check out my previous blog post COVID-19 Reporting and Scientific Communication Confusion.
Finally, while it may seem like overzealous cleaning is harmless, it can in fact be harmful. Daphne Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University, explains heavy use of disinfectants produces toxic molecules we then inhale, damaging our lungs (as cited in Neighmond, 2020).
But what about that REALM project?
If you’re a librarian reading this blog, you are probably familiar with the REALM project in which studies were done to see how long COVD-19 was detectable on surfaces of different types of library materials under a variety of storage conditions. The results varied widely, and they led many library staff to quarantine items returned from patrons and to close down stacks for browsing.
The REALM results haven’t been accepted without question by everyone, though. Librarians reached out to Goldman about this, and he responded to them and to the REALM group. In a message from Goldman (2020) that was archived by the Maine State Library, he says these results are misleading, and it’s unlikely you will contract COVID from these materials. You would only have 1-2 hours where it’s possible to contract the virus, and even then, you would only contract it if you touched the infected surface and very soon after touched your mouth, nose, eyes, or face without having washed your hands. His detailed response is definitely worth a read if you’re a librarian or anyone who wants to learn more about viral transmission via surfaces.
When questioned about REALM research, Sharon Streams, director of the REALM project, admitted that it’s unclear whether the researchers used a realistic amount of virus or whether the virus found on the surfaces was anything that could actually cause infections. Later versions of the REALM project’s reports have emphasized that you’re most likely to get COVID through respiratory droplets (Barber, 2020).
So, what does this mean for disinfecting surfaces and quarantining items?
This does not mean you don’t have to clean surfaces, it just means you don’t have to be overzealous. You should regularly clean surfaces for health purposes; for example, it’s never a good idea to breathe in dust particles. Also, bacteria can live outside of the body and can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces.
Although you generally do not need to go overboard with cleaning, the amount of cleaning and disinfecting you should do depends on the individual situation. For example, Justin Lessler, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, says while it’s generally unnecessary to wipe down groceries, it may not be a bad idea to take precautions and wipe down groceries if you or someone you’re caring for is at a high risk of becoming severely ill. It also makes sense for some places like hospitals and nursing homes to frequently clean surfaces because of the high likelihood of large viral and bacterial loads that can end up on high-touch surfaces (as cited in the Associated Press, 2020). Ultimately, though, the evidence does not appear to support obsessive cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and quarantining items in most situations.
Just wash your hands and wear a mask.
Remember, even if you have touched an infected surface, there is a chain of events that must happen for infection to occur. After you touch a surface with a transmissible viral or bacterial load, you must then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth for infection to be possible. The best evidence-based advice to prevent infection after you have touched a contaminated surface is to simply wash your hands. According to CDC (2020) guidelines to help fight COVID-19, or any germs, you should wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before touching your face, and use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not available. The CDC (2020) also explains soap and water is better than hand sanitizer in many situations.
And remember, the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home and, if you can’t stay home, wear a mask and practice social distancing.