In the early months of the pandemic, researchers warned that the virus that causes COVID-19 could survive on plastic or stainless steel for days. If you touched those surfaces and then your face, you could get sick. As a result, many people began disinfecting groceries, washing produce with soap, waiting days to open mail.
While the proper use of soap and modern sanitizers remain necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a steady accumulation of new scientific findings now suggest the risk of infection from surfaces were sensationalized. The reality is, many early studies were performed under lab conditions that were unlikely to appear in the real world with quantities of live virus hundreds or thousands of times higher than would appear on an infected doorknob or subway rail.
In early April, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (C.D.C.) updated its surface cleaning guidelines, noting that your risk of contracting COVID-19 from a contaminated surface is likely less than 1 in 10,000.
“People can be affected with the virus that causes COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on April 8. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”
Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the New York Times that catching COVID from surfaces is theoretically possible, but it requires many things to go wrong: a lot of fresh, infectious viral particles to be deposited on a surface, and then for a relatively large quantity of them to be quickly transferred to someone’s hand and then to their face.
For the most part, however, “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching,” researchers told the New York Times.
Experts have suspected for several months that the risk of infection from surfaces had been overblown. Many had even warned people and businesses that the overzealous use of harsh disinfectants and chemicals could even be harmful without meaningfully minimizing real risks. They dubbed this “hygiene theatre.”
While dousing surfaces with sterilizing chemicals is unnecessary outside healthcare or higher-risk settings, the C.D.C. has not advised people to stop washing their hands or abandon daily cleaning of high-touch surfaces. Soap and water, and modern sanitizers, are after all the most consequential public health intervention of the last 200 years, and one of our most effective tools in the fight against contagions of all kind—COVID-19 included.
“The most reliable way to prevent infection from surfaces is to regularly wash hands or use hand sanitizer,” the C.D.C. advised.
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