Published On: Thu, Nov 19th, 2020

If the Coronavirus Is Airborne, Why Do We Disinfect Surfaces?



Scientists now say the COVID-19 virus is primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets, and is especially contagious indoors where ventilation is poor, and the pathogen can linger in the air.

That raises questions about whether all the scrubbing, spraying, and cleaning of surfaces we have been doing all these months has been an exercise in futility.

“In my opinion, a lot of time, energy and money is being wasted on surface disinfection and, more importantly, diverting attention and resources away from preventing airborne transmission,” said Dr. Kevin P. Fennelly, a specialist in infectious disease and pulmonology from Bethesda, Maryland, according to The New York Times.

However, many respiratory ailments such as the common cold and flu, are triggered by contaminated surfaces so it made sense early in the pandemic to assume that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could be transmitted in the same way. Studies did show that the virus could survive on surfaces such as plastic or stainless steel for up to 3 days and on cardboard for a day.

But ongoing research has proven that the main source of transmission of COVID-19 is airborne, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The likelihood of getting COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface is highly unlikely, Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UC Davis Medical Group, told WebMD.

“You’d need a unique sequence of events,” he said. “First, someone would need to get a large enough amount of the virus on a surface to cause an infection. Then, the virus would need to survive long enough for you to touch that surface and get some on your hands. Then, without washing your hands, you’d have to touch your eyes, nose and, mouth.”

Experts say studies have only proven that the virus can stay alive on surfaces and not that that it can be transmitted by touching those surfaces. However, one study in China suggested possible transmission from touching an elevator button, and another from South Africa found contaminated medical equipment caused a spread of the disease.  

Dr. Alicia Kray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Emory University who is working on a study about the effectiveness of cleaning and disinfecting in reducing your risk of COVID-19, told WebMD that hard surfaces in common areas should be regularly cleaned as they may play a role in transmission.

But experts warn that putting too much emphasis on cleaning may divert people from the real COVID-19 risks.

“I find that all these contact concerns distract people from doing things that are proven to prevent transmission, like wearing a mask and social distancing,” Dr. Blumberg told WebMD.


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