It’s time to unplug the sanitizing robots and put away the bottles of Clorox that seem to line the entrances to every school, restaurant and supermarket wanting to advertise its safety protocols. While such protocols may be reassuring to an anxious populace, they are not necessary, says a revised guidance issued on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low,” the new CDC guidance says, estimating that the chance of contracting the coronavirus through surface transmission is lower than 1 in 10,000.
The coronavirus is spread almost exclusively by airborne and aerosolized particles, as scientists have known for months. Despite scientists’ growing certitude about how the pathogen is transmitted, many establishments have continued to insist on strict sanitization protocols. In some school districts, for example, classrooms close for full-day “deep cleaning.”
The persistence of such practices has led to the advent of a derisive term — “hygiene theater” — to describe rituals that appear to do little to stop the virus from spreading. It is not clear if the CDC’s new guidance will lower the curtain on those theatrics, given how entrenched some of those practices have become.
“If we took half the effort that’s being given to disinfection, and we put it on ventilation, that will be huge,” University of Colorado atmospheric chemist Jose-Luis Jimenez told the scientific publication Nature for an article published last month.
Scientists’ changing understanding of the virus has made it difficult for public health experts and elected officials to offer the public consistent advice.
For example, when the pandemic began, Americans were told that face masks were not necessary. That guidance was later amended after it became clear that masks kept a sick person from spreading the disease. Still later, scientists acknowledged that masks also protected the wearer.
The Biden administration has continued to ask people to wear face masks, but months of confusion and contradiction have likely attenuated the impact of that message.
The science regarding fomites has followed a similar route. At first, the World Health Organization said the coronavirus was not airborne but instead was transmitted primarily through “respiratory droplets and contact routes,” a mistaken assertion that has been criticized since it was made in March 2020.
It was around that time that the U.S. saw surging demand for heavy-duty disinfectants that would kill any trace of virus on a surface. But as researchers have discovered, such traces are usually relatively small and have a difficult time finding a new human host. What’s more, simple cleaning agents appear to be effective against the virus, obviating the need for more advanced (and expensive) disinfectants.
“In most situations, cleaning surfaces using soap or detergent, and not disinfecting, is enough to reduce risk,” says the new guidance, which was introduced by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, during a Monday briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team.
The use of such disinfectants, the CDC says, is necessary only if a person known to be infected with the coronavirus has been inside the space in question within the previous 24 hours. But because it can be difficult for restaurants and other high-volume establishments to know whether a patron is infected — a difficulty compounded by the scarcity of rapid testing — it is likely that as unnecessary and expensive as such measures are, the hygiene theater will go on.
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