Cleaning up the Germs that Cause COVID-19

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist, and schools and classrooms begin to reopen, UNLV biochemist Ernesto Abel-Santos provides cleaning best practices. Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services

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A meme is circulating on the Internet comparing the statement “once COVID-19 is over” to the wishful possibility of winning the lottery.

Both might seem very out of reach, but continuing to remain vigilant with frequent handwashing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and cleaning — especially as summer winds down and schools reopen — could eventually make a difference with the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.

Ernest Abel-Santos

Ernesto Abel-Santos, a professor of biochemistry at UNLV who studies bacteria such as anthrax and the hospital infection, Clostridium difficile (C-diff), said we should continue to be “as careful as possible” with the daily choices we make, and the activities we partake in as the pandemic continues to persist.

While social distancing, handwashing, and donning a face covering continue to be the most prudent actions people can take, Abel-Santos said being attentive to frequent cleaning is also a critical tool in our arsenal — especially in classrooms with students coming and going.

Here, Abel-Santos provides cleaning best practices to keep virus germs at bay.

How important is cleaning surfaces when it comes to protecting yourself from contracting a disease like COVID-19? How often should you clean surfaces? Is it as important as frequent handwashing?

Frequent handwashing is still the most important action you can take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. That, combined with social distancing and wearing a mask — in the absence of an effective treatment, or a vaccine — are the three most vital things you can do.

The main way of contracting COVID-19 is through person to person contact. So, if someone is sneezing, coughing, talking or singing, it produces aerosols from your mouth, and that’s the way that most people contract it.

The virus can also linger on surfaces from hours to days, depending on the surface. We should clean surfaces often, but how often depends on the usage of the area.

Classrooms, for example, where a group of students come in, leave, and then another group follows, should be cleaned after every class. Every person should be responsible for cleaning their desk before leaving. And if you’re the person coming into the class, you should disinfect too, because you don’t know if the person before you did.

Masks must also be decontaminated continually. People should either use single-use disposable masks or wash their cloth masks at the end of the day. Cloth masks should be treated as undergarments — change them daily.

Are all surfaces in your home and office created equal? Are some surfaces more likely to harbor germs than others?

The virus can stay on cardboard for up to 24 hours. It can stay on copper surfaces for up to four hours but can linger for two to three days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces. It can hang in the air around you for up to three hours.

Copper tends to be more reactive, so it is able to kill the virus quicker. Rigid surfaces like plastic, stainless steel and perhaps even marble, provide a better environment for the surface to survive. But there are still a lot of things we don’t know, which is why we have to be as careful as possible and clean often.

You have to ask yourself, what is the likelihood that a given surface is exposed? If you’re isolated at home, and you minimize going out and avoid bars, churches, gyms, or other areas where people congregate in large amounts, your risks are diminished, and you would not need to decontaminate surfaces as frequently. If you’re sharing an office, or work in an office where people are continuously coming in and out, you have to clean more often. An office at the end of a hall behind a partition does not pose the same risk as a receptionist coming into contact with multiple people.

What disinfectants are most effective in killing the germs that cause COVID-19?

COVID-19, like other viruses, are actually quite weak and wimpy outside of the body. You can neutralize them with alcohol. Detergents with quaternary ammonium salts are also effective.

Any disinfectant will kill viruses. But again, one of the most effective strategies is washing your hands. You don’t realize how many times in a day you touch your face with your hands. If you touch a surface and then touch your face, it increases the probability of contagion.

One word of caution. You have to be careful right now because there’s been a huge increase in alcohol based sanitizers. Many new companies have popped up to fill the demand, but some companies are adulterating the alcohol content.

Some are using methanol, which is a wood alcohol. Skin exposure is not that bad, but if children get into it, and ingest it, it can cause blindness.

How long should you leave the cleaning product on the surface before wiping it off?

That depends on the disinfectant. Alcohol-based disinfectants, for example, evaporate very quickly. After a few seconds, it’s gone.

Every disinfectant will list directions on the bottle with its recommended usage. It’s important to read the manufacturer directions carefully and follow the directions correctly.

Should you use gloves when cleaning?

I would not, unless it’s recommended by the manufacturer. You can use gloves when you’re using something like bleach, but that’s to protect you from the bleach more than anything else. We use gloves in laboratories, but it’s not recommended in houses.

Gloves are also counterproductive in situations like shopping in a supermarket. In a lab environment, we use gloves all the time, but we have boxes and boxes of gloves and we continuously change them out.

Once you touch a surface, your gloves are going to be contaminated. It’s the same thing if you touch the surface with your bare hands. If you touch your face with a contaminated glove, it’s going to carry the same risk of catching the virus as if you touched your face with your bare hand. 

How can you be certain that the cleaning materials that businesses are using are effective in preventing COVID-19?

Quite simply, you cannot. You hope that everyone is taking it seriously and that everyone is following procedures given by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the World Health Organization on how to disinfect and keep things safe, but it’s not a guarantee.

If you’re going to go out, I would recommend bringing a small spray bottle of disinfectant and wipe the area. But the ways things are going now, I wouldn’t recommend going to places like gyms, bars, movie theaters, or other areas where large numbers of people are congregating.

Cleaning surfaces is important, but it is secondary to measures like social distancing, wearing masks, and washing your hands.