The Centers for Disease Control confirmed today what epidemiologists have been saying for at least eight months, which is you don’t need to keep disinfecting surfaces and decontaminating your groceries because the coronavirus doesn’t spread by surface contact.
This is not to say that it is never possible for a person to get COVID-19 from a contaminated surface, but experts have said there has not yet been a confirmed case of this, and most agree that the chances of such an infection are very, very slim. Hand-washing is still encouraged, sure — and other diseases spread this way so why not? But, as of Thursday, the CDC may finally be putting an end to the need for the sort of hygiene theater that many, many businesses are still performing.
“People can be [infected] with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky during a White House briefing earlier this week. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”
The agency also updated its official cleaning protocols for workplaces and schools, which still discus surface contamination as a possible hazard. But they now say that full disinfection of a space — beyond standard daily cleaning — isn’t necessary unless COVID infection is high in a particular area, there is a “low number of people wearing masks,” or if an infected person has been in a space in the last 24 hours.
As the New York Times reports, multiple experts in the field praised the updates, but they go further to say things in more absolute terms.
“There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface,” says Linsey Marr, an airborne virus expert at Virginia Tech. She adds that the appearance of surfaces being cleaned simply “makes people feel safer.”
And Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, says, “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”
Early in the pandemic, there was widespread misinformation about the primary sources of infection — with health officials and experts initially insisting that the virus was only spread through large respiratory droplets. Here in the Bay Area, that led to one county health officer in Solano County insisting that offices could stay open as long people had their own cubicles. Solano County initially did not follow the rest of the region in enacting a stay-at-home order, but within about a week they did, and then Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas jumped the gun on reopening indoor restaurants in May as well.
Within a month or two, it became clear that face masks were necessary to reduce transmission risk, and that outbreaks were occurring in indoor spaces regardless of how well people washed or sanitized their hands.
But over a year since pandemic lockdowns began in the U.S., people are still obsessed with Clorox wipes and the Chase Center is still talking about spraying down seats with electrostatic disinfecting sprayers.
Dr. Walensky said in her Monday briefing, “In most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”
Dr. Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, expressed relief at the CDC’s new stance, and tells the Times, “This should be the end of deep cleaning,” and “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better” that they were spending on all this “hygiene theater.”