Time to stop the hygiene theater


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The billboards along the interstate near our houses still flash, “Wash your hands and wear a mask to stop the spread of COVID”. As we learn more about the virus, it’s increasingly clear that those two actions are not equivalent. A new piece in the Atlantic makes a strong argument that our obsessive surface cleaning and handwashing is largely “hygiene theater”, doing very little to stop the spread of the disease.

COVID-19 is spread almost exclusively by aerosol transmission, breathing in virus particles emitted from an infected person that remain suspended in the air. Spread by fomites, or virus particles lingering on surfaces, is responsible for little-to-no documented transmission, despite numerous studies (of varying quality) showing the virus can “live” on surfaces for up to a month. The author concedes it’s not impossible, but the attention to surfaces is misdirected: “If somebody with COVID-19 sneezes three times onto a little spot on a cold steel table, and you rub your hand around in the snot for a bit and immediately lick your fingers, that disgusting act may well result in you infecting yourself. But the threat of such unbelievably stupid behavior at a mass level shouldn’t warrant a multibillion-dollar war on fomites.”
Our obsession with surface cleaning has harmful consequences. The billions of dollars spent on regimented cleaning could be redirected toward better uses. Schools are still waiting for funding to safely reopen. The money devoted to surface cleaning should instead be spent improving ventilation and making sure all teachers and students have high-quality masks. All of the harsh cleaning chemicals we are inhaling may be harming our health. And most importantly, surface cleaning creates a false sense of security, sending a message that it’s OK to dine maskless, indoors, at a restaurant because they’re lowering risk by thoroughly cleaning the menus and tables. As we navigate our way to the end of the pandemic, we need to reinforce the point that masks, ventilation and vaccines, not Lysol and Clorox, are our best weapons against the virus.

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