If we’re going to get kids back to in-person instruction anytime soon, schools are going to have to shell out time, money, and effort to make their classrooms COVID-safe. To do that, some districts are ramping up their cleaning routines or shutting down mid-week for a deep clean. As virologist Emanuel Goldman puts it, that’s “bupkis.” Disinfecting surfaces is not how you stop the coronavirus from spreading, and putting such a huge focus on Lysol wipes means schools are paying less attention to prevention methods that matter, namely masks, social distancing, and ventilation.
In public and private spaces, we want to feel like we’re doing something tangible to keep an outbreak at bay, so we clean — even though that’s not a proven way to curb transmission. This mostly useless cleaning is perhaps best described as “hygiene theater,” an expression coined in a recent Atlantic article. The coronavirus mainly spreads by breathing in respiratory droplets spewed by people with COVID-19 — not by touching contaminated surfaces. So escalated cleaning is not what you should be advocating for in your school, especially when your school is on a tight budget that forces them to pick and choose their precautions.
This obsession with cleaning doorknobs and faucet handles is rooted in studies of the coronavirus from the early days of the pandemic. Researchers found that the virus could survive for days on surfaces, but skeptics say this study isn’t realistic. Goldman, a professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, explains why this is the case and what schools must do to protect students.
How did you come to realize that cleaning surfaces to kill the coronavirus is overemphasized?
Early on in the pandemic, the information that was put out there was that the virus could survive for days and days on surfaces and that there had to be repeated hand-washing and disinfection of all surfaces repeatedly. This got into the mindset of everyone. I was wearing gloves at that point. But as a virologist, I’ve spent my career studying bacterial viruses and also some animal viruses. It didn’t make sense to me that the coronavirus would have this long life on surfaces because it’s an enveloped virus, and these are more fragile. On top of that, my mother-in-law was driving me crazy about what can cause infection.
So, I went back to the primary literature. What I found was that all of the experiments that claimed long life survival of the virus on surfaces used humongous amounts of virus. The inputs of the experiment were many, many more times the amount of virus that you would find in a real-life scenario. So in the Atlantic article, we did a calculation. You’d have to have about 100 people infected with COVID-19 cough or sneeze on a small surface area to get even approaching the amount of virus that was used in these experiments. If you look at other experiments done before that try to more realistically present the situation that might occur in real life, you don’t find that kind of long life survival of a virus. It’s not that I’m disputing those COVID-19 experiments. But they were the wrong experiments to do because they didn’t relate to real life.
What does that mean for people at home and in schools who are prioritizing cleaning surfaces?
People are going through the motions of doing what they think will protect them, and it really is useless. It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of effort. Even worse, it may draw away attention from what really will protect you. And what really will protect you are masks, social distancing, and moving things outdoors. All of this disinfection of surfaces is an old word called ‘bupkis.’ It’s nonsense.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends disinfecting and cleaning high touch surfaces daily. Isn’t it better safe than sorry?
If you’re in a hospital, sure. In a hospital you have to be on top of things. In a private home setting and most non-hospital settings, it’s excessive. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you shouldn’t wash your hands. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning surfaces. But I don’t think you need to do anything extra than you would have done before the pandemic. Our mothers told us you wash your hands when you go to the bathroom, you wash your hands when you prepare food, you wash your hands if you touch something that may be dirty. We have to do that, but we do that anyway even without COVID-19.
If you’ve got someone who’s infected who coughs or sneezes on a surface, and someone else touches that surface within an hour or two, they may be at risk. But then they not only have to touch the surface, they have to then touch their face: their mouth, their nose, or their eyes. If they wash their hands before they touch their face, they won’t get it. So I think the cleaning is excessive. In schools, it’s a waste of resources. It’s a waste of time. The cleaning is not what’s going to prevent spread.
What about if someone in the school tests positive? Does it make sense then to shut down for a day or two of deep cleaning?
Shutting down for a day or two is all you have to do. After a day or two, the virus will be gone even if you don’t do the deep cleaning. The reason they found the virus surviving for four, five, six days was that they had humongous amounts to start with. That’s not what you’re going to find even if you have one infected individual in a school. You might want to clean where that particular student was sitting. But even there, the virus is not going to live very long.
We know moving classes outdoors and requiring masks and social distancing are some of the best COVID-19 precautions schools can take. How effective are other actions like increasing ventilation?
Air circulation could be a problem, and that’s why moving things outdoors whenever possible is a good way to help protect yourself and others around you. We do have precedents of infectious agents being spread through air circulation. Legionnaires disease, for example, was spread through the air conditioning ventilation system in Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia in 1976.
I’m not a physicist or an expert in aerodynamics, but ventilation is the kind of thing I’m worried about because the primary route of transmission is by breathing in the virus. So anything that’s connected to breathing it in is something that requires paying attention to. That’s why masks are so important. You look at the countries in Asia where they adopted universal mask use, and they got the disease under control very quickly. We seem to have a problem with that here in the United States.