All over the world, people are disinfecting, spraying, and wiping down surfaces with an urgent sense of purpose: They want to kill the coronavirus.
Many of us are cautious about touching things like ATM buttons, door handles, and hand rails. Some of us wear disposable gloves when we go out. Others even wipe down their groceries after bringing them home.
When the pandemic began, these measures seemed like the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The common cold and flu viruses spread from contaminated surfaces. So it seemed logical to assume that coronavirus does, too. Studies confirmed this idea by finding that coronavirus seemed to survive for up to three days on surfaces like plastic and metal.
Now it looks like all the disinfection precautions we’ve been taking are unnecessary. Researchers increasingly say there is little to no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus.
What about those studies that found that coronavirus could survive for days on surfaces?
Later research showed that those studies were likely finding dead virus fragments that are not infectious.
Dr. Kevin P. Fennelly is a respiratory infection specialist with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). “In my opinion, a lot of time, energy, and money is being wasted on surface disinfection,” he said.
It’s now clear that coronavirus spreads almost entirely through the air, Dr. Fennelly said.
A paper in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, argues that some scientists have exaggerated the threat posed by coronavirus on surfaces.
The article noted that SARS virus, which is a closely related cousin to the current coronavirus, doesn’t spread through surfaces.
“There is no reason to expect that the close relative (of the COVID-19 virus) would behave significantly different,” the paper said.
Coronavirus Prevention: Put Down the Alcohol and Do This Instead
As the pandemic progresses, we learn more and more about COVID-19. And we now know that it is spread through the air. Only rarely, if at all, do people catch it from contaminated surfaces.
Disinfection can’t hurt. But you should instead focus on ways to avoid airborne virus:
- Wear a mask. Like surface contamination, the thinking regarding masks has changed since the pandemic started. At first, the CDC said mask-wearing was unnecessary. Other experts recommended against masks, fearing that if the public started wearing them there wouldn’t be enough for health-care workers.
In April, the CDC reversed its position and advised the public to wear masks in public. Now, mask-wearing is mandatory in many parts of the country.
New studies show that masks not only prevent infected people from spreading the virus, they protect the wearer from catching the disease.
- Take it outside. Yes, distancing is important. But the widely recommended six-foot distance may be insufficient when you’re breathing indoor air shared by others. One study found that 94% of COVID-19 cases are linked to indoor transmission.
- Bigger is better. Big rooms with plenty of air movement are safer than small spaces with less ventilation.
- Say it don’t spray it. Places were people shout, sing, or breathe heavily are more dangerous than places where they are quiet.
- Air it out. Opening windows has long been used to reduce the spread of airborne infections inside buildings. A 2019 study in the journal BMJ Infectious Diseases found that opening windows reduced tuberculosis transmission by 72%. In developing countries, hospitals often rely on open windows to cut the risk of germs spreading in the air.
Epidemiologist Dr. Antoine Flahault likens it to airing out a room when someone is smoking. “What do you do? You open a window to let the smoke out,” he said. “It’s the same for these invisible coronavirus aerosols.”
If nothing else, disinfecting surfaces will help prevent colds and flu. But it is now clear that when it comes to COVID prevention, your priority should be the air you breathe.
Editor’s Note: Discover the simple ancient health practice that researchers believe may offer a “ray of hope” in the fight against COVID-19. It takes just minutes a day.
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