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How 'Hygiene Theater' Distracts In The Fight Against COVID-19

From Texas Standard:

From sanitizing the mail to disinfecting groceries and door knobs, many individuals and businesses are taking aggressive measures to keep surfaces clean to protect against the coronavirus. But are all of these precautions necessary? Or are some overdoing the advice public health authorities have been providing since the pandemic began?

Derek Thompson is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His recent article suggests some of us may be engaging in so-called hygiene theater. He told Texas Standard's Joy Díaz that while it's useful to wash your hands and wipe down surfaces, there are plenty of responses to coronavirus fears that are overwrought and don't control the spread of disease. 

"Hygiene theater would be a gym chain like Planet Fitness boasting in advertisement that they're sanitizing every single surface, and they're a lean, not mean, virus-fighting machine," Thompson said. 

New York City subways shut down each night for blasts of "antimicrobial weaponry," Thompson said, which is out of proportion to what's needed to disinfect the vital transit system. 

"It's these companies and institutions that have made a religion out of deep cleaning at a time when we're dealing with a pandemic that does not seem as likely to spread via surfaces as it does through the air," Thompson said. 

In his article, Thompson cited scientists who do not believe COVID-19 survives on surfaces long enough to cause infection, as many authorities said in March, when they advised the public to wipe down doorknobs, countertops and even packages delivered to their homes.

Thompson said initial research overestimated the likely concentration of virus particles that would remain on a surface if, for example, an infected person sneezed nearby.

Thompson said scientists told him that priorities for preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be: social distance, masks and making sure that activities involving more than two people are done outside, where particles are more dispersed. 

"If we make people believe that if they only buy the right disinfectant, they can go about the rest of their lives in normal fashion, that's just not an accurate way to communicate the science of this disease's transmission," Thompson said.

Deep cleaning itself might not cause harm, Thompson said, but shutting down institutions like schools to do it, at tremendous fiscal cost, is a problem. Disinfecting can also provide a false sense of security if other measures aren't taken to improve ventilation or maintain personal protection, like wearing masks.

"It doesn't matter how clean the tables are if people are huffing and puffing the same stale air and passing around aerosolized droplets that are infected by the virus," he said.

Web story by Shelly Brisbin.

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