Is extreme cleaning in the pandemic 'hygiene theater'? Experts weigh in on controversial debate.

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, three professors argue that we’re “overcleaning” surfaces during the coronavirus pandemic. But some experts say that cleaning is important for infection control, with one calling the professors’ suggestion to stop spending time and money cleaning shared surfaces “irresponsible.”

Are we "overcleaning" surfaces in response to COVID-19? Three experts, writing for the Washington Post, say we are. But others disagree. (Photo: Getty Images)
Are we "overcleaning" surfaces in response to COVID-19? Three experts, writing in the Washington Post, say we are. But other experts disagree. (Photo: Getty Images)

The professors — Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Charles Haas, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University; and Linsey C. Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech — wrote that there are no documented cases of a patient getting COVID-19 from touching an infected surface, and question why we’re spending “a small fortune to deep clean our offices, schools, subways and buses,” calling it “hygiene theater.”

In the article, the professors wrote that “the reality is that the novel coronavirus spreads mainly through the air,” which is confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The professors argue that “with regular hand-washing, there’s no need to constantly disinfect surfaces.” They add: “We should continue to wash our hands and pay attention to hygiene, but we only have so much time, energy and money to spend on reducing the risk of transmission.”

Backlash and mixed opinions

Debra Goff, an infectious disease pharmacist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and professor of pharmacy at OSU, agrees that there’s a higher probability of respiratory or airborne transmission than contracting COVID-19 from surfaces. But, Goff tells Yahoo Life: “Suggesting to clean less during a global pandemic that is spinning out of control — it’s not the best message. Do we think doing less while we’re failing is the right strategy? I don’t. It sends a very confusing, mixed message to society, and I find that to be irresponsible.”

Goff says that even though there’s a low probability a person would get infected from touching surfaces, “that doesn’t mean zero.” She adds: “I really think we still need to err on the side of caution.”

Although the CDC states that “spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the agency notes that respiratory droplets from an infected person can “land on surfaces and objects and be transferred by touch. A person may get COVID-19 by touching the surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes.”

So how long can the virus survive on surfaces? That depends. “Survival time is dependent on factors such as humidity and surface, i.e. a viral droplet in a humid environment will live longer on plastic cell phone covers than copper,” Neysa P. Ernst, nurse manager in the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, tells Yahoo Life.

In general, Goff says the coronavirus can survive on a surface anywhere from less than an hour to up to several days. “It depends on the viral load,” she says.

However, “how much that translates into transmission specifically has not been characterized precisely,” Prathit Kulkarni, MD, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “But it is probably the case that transmission via surfaces is not a major contributor to overall COVID-19 transmission.”

“Cleaning surfaces is important”

In the opinion piece, the professors wrote about an organization that cares for homeless people, which spent “$150,000 on cleaning costs since July.” But, Goff says, “The article is implying we don’t need to be spending this money cleaning all these surfaces. It’s not that simple. Cleaning surfaces is important, just like washing your hands more often.”

Goff says that it’s possible to do surface cleaning in a “responsible way” and to find “a balance,” rather than shifting away from cleaning surfaces entirely.

Kulkarni says that “cleaning is one part of our control efforts.” He continues: “The most important components are universal masking and physical distancing outside of the home, frequent hand-washing, and avoiding large crowds. Doing all these things is critical. Routine cleaning and disinfection practices are currently recommended by CDC.”

The CDC’s reopening guidelines state that “frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important,” such as doorknobs and light switches. But the CDC also points out that “most surfaces and objects will just need normal routine cleaning,” with some surfaces only needing to be cleaned with soap and water.

“The COVID-19 virus is surrounded by a ‘lipid layer,’ essentially a layer of fat,” explains Ernst. “Soap and water hand-washing breaks down this layer most effectively. Alcohol-based sanitizers are most effective when friction is created by vigorous hand to hand rubbing. Friction when cleaning surfaces will also break this lipid layer.”

Cleaning shared surfaces in public places has other benefits. “It absolutely decreases influenza and the cold virus, which decreases [people] getting infected,” says Goff. “That’s a very good thing in the midst of this pandemic,” since flu symptoms can appear similar to COVID-19 symptoms even though they’re caused by different viruses.

Ernst says that disinfecting surfaces in public places, such as schools and offices, can also be reassuring to parents, teachers, and employees who are concerned about the risk of infection. “Cleaning is important for infection control and 'psychological safety,’” explains Ernst. “I get feedback from patients and families about seeing staff cleaning frequently during their visit. I also get comments from patients that they did not see anyone cleaning and they were concerned. In order to get 'back to normal,' people need to see evidence that the environment is attended to.”

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