With COVID-19 coronavirus spreading throughout the US and beyond, it seems every surface might hold the pesky pathogen. We’re told to sanitize surfaces and ourselves. Washing hands is within our control, but can we really get surfaces coronavirus-free?
It’s easy to start to think that every surface we touch holds the key to our doom. While that may not be true, surface decontamination and sanitization has become a topic of frequent discussion. But how clean can we get surfaces and can we keep them that way?
If the most recent work from the science folk at Ohio State University is accurate, we’re not as good at surface cleaning and decontamination as we probably think we are. While their research centered around preventing disease transmission in a veterinary setting, it has applications to humans, too.
A team spent 5 1/2 weeks tagging surfaces with a fluorescent dye at a small-animal veterinary practice. The dye was visible only by illuminating it with a black light. If the dye was gone when it was checked 24 hours later, this was considered an indication that the surfaces had been adequately cleaned and sanitized.
The results of this work reinforced what researchers had found in similar, previous studies. That is, we aren’t that great at cleaning surfaces.
Only half of all the surfaces were adequately cleaned. Those touched most often by humans, including medical instruments, computer mice and keyboards and dog run handles, were cleaned less frequently than other surfaces.
According to the researchers, we’d be best off developing checklists of all the surfaces that need to be cleaned regularly. Then, we can educate ourselves and everyone involved in cleaning about how important it is to clean those surfaces. In the case of the veterinary clinic, it will not only protect humans from infection, but our animals, too.
“The concept of infectious diseases is around us all the time, but now it’s more important than ever to take steps to protect ourselves,” said senior study author Jason Stull, assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University.
“A recent study concluded the coronavirus causing COVID-19 has the ability to survive on certain types of surfaces for hours to a few days. At veterinary practices, other businesses and certainly human hospitals, surface cleaning and disinfection is extremely important. People come in and may contaminate an area and that area potentially can serve as a source of infection for other people.”
The study is published in the February issue of the Journal of Small Animal Practice.
Stull knows what he’s talking about. He’s a specialist in veterinary infection control. His field includes work on preventing diseases that can be passed between animals and from animals to humans. These include E. coli., Salmonella and parasites, among others.
Their study included assessment of nearly 5,000 surfaces during its course. Human-touch surfaces were least likely to be cleaned (yuk!) Only about 50 percent of all surfaces were cleaned, regardless of surface type or location.
They were looking at cleaning practices in a place where people are spending time with a variety of animals and people. Considering the nature of their study, it’s not a stretch to apply what they found to what we’re experiencing right now around COVID-19, according to Stull.
“Plenty of industries and groups outside of human health care have ramped up their efforts to clean and disinfect common-touch surfaces. The take-home messages from our study can have important parallels for others, such as other veterinary clinics, but also groups such as grocery stores.
“Our study also highlights that, despite our best efforts, 100 percent cleaning and disinfection is unlikely to occur. This is important to remember, as regardless of where you visit, it’s also best to assume surfaces may be contaminated — and before you come back into your home, you should follow the recommendations to clean your hands and clean items you’ve handled.”
So what surfaces should you worry about at home? Concentrate on common-touch surfaces like countertops and doorknobs, Stull said.
“For the average person, it’s thinking about your list of things in your own home and ensuring that in some way that you’re actually hitting those pieces with reasonable effort,” he said.
Stull wondered about how diligent we will be about personal cleanliness and community health when the coronavirus threat has subsided. Right now, we’re very keyed in to the idea of washing our hands after touching various surfaces and before touching our faces, mouths, noses, etc. But will that diligence last post-COVID-19?
“People have a tendency to swing from extremes,” Stull said. “Changing the innate behaviors of people is always difficult, and we’ve struggled in human and veterinary health care to change these everyday practices.
“The hard part is continuing these efforts. When we get to the end of this, and at some point that will happen, you will likely see people revert back to their norm. What we need is a culture shift, so people recognize that infection control through hand-washing and thorough cleaning of shared surfaces is a critically important thing we can all do all the time, and it has measurable impact.”
Right now, personal hygiene is all the rage. Everyone is washing their hands, cleaning all their surfaces and even trying to keep each other clean by “distancing.” However, we could apparently use some practice and a little more diligence. We’ll see if we can get better at this.
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Keep the faith and keep after it!
Journal Reference – G. Langdon, A. E. Hoet, J. W. Stull. Fluorescent tagging for environmental surface cleaning surveillance in a veterinary hospital. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 2019; 61 (2): 121 DOI: 10.1111/jsap.13090