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Do we still need to disinfect surfaces during the pandemic?

cleaning surfaces covid
Photo via Marco Verch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • COVID-19 viral transmission is much more effective through the air
  • Viral particles can still survive for days on poreless surfaces
  • Surfaces should be cleaned but with less regularity

Just one year ago, photos of empty aisles had a strong presence online, as the coronavirus pandemic first began to take hold and people began buying up as many cleaning products as possible. However, that might not have been necessary. Viral coronavirus particles don’t transmit on surfaces quite as much as previously thought— and it’s led the Centers for Disease Control to change its guidelines on cleaning surface 13 months into the COVID pandemic.

On April 5, 2021, the CDC updated its guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, which was a heavy focus of early information regarding the spread of COVID-19 (along with washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and social distancing).

This new guidance states that the principal method of infection is through the transmission of respiratory droplets carrying live virus particles, such as when people are talking, coughing, and sneezing. Transmission via surfaces is possible, but it is far less likely. 

This particular method of spread—known as fomite transmission— is dependent on a viral particle’s ability to survive on a surface or object long enough to infect a new person, according to the CDC. 

Other variables that make this method less effective include how long it has been since a person was infected vs. how long it has been since they touched a surface or object and how much of the virus is needed to infect someone from something like a countertop or a library book. 

With low rates of transmission through this avenue, the risk of fomite transmission relative to airborne, droplet, or contact transmission is low, close to being non-existent, according to experts. One expert on airborne illnesses Lindsey Marr of Virginia Tech told the New York Times that there’s no evidence anyone has ever gotten sick with COVID-19 from touching surfaces. 

The recommendation from the CDC is to continue disinfecting high-traffic public areas, about once per day. All that is needed to permeate the viral membrane and compromise the integrity of COVID-19 particles, is soap and water—but Lysol and Clorox wipes will still do the trick. 

Sources: CDC, New York Times


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