As the economy inches toward reopening, health experts warn that disinfecting public spaces, trains, and subway cars won’t ward off coronavirus infection if people fail to protect themselves.
A disinfected surface will be recontaminated the first time respiratory droplets from an infected person settle on it or it is touched with a virus-laden hand. Face masks, hand sanitizers, and washing, disinfecting wipes and social distancing should remain the first line of defense until a vaccine is available and widely used, public health experts said.
“Disinfecting does reduce some risk, but you have to take some responsibility for yourself,” said Connie Steed, president of APIC, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, and director of infection prevention in a Greenville, South Carolina, health care system. “It will get rid of the germs that may have built up over time. But as soon as you get another carful of people touching things, the germs get right back on the surfaces.”
With Long Island officials, and the rest of the state, assessing the prospect of reopening, companies are inquiring about professional deep cleaning and sanitation services to reassure their workers and the public that the space is virus free, several restoration companies said.
The MTA this week started shutting down the subway system for deep cleaning from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., and the Long Island Rail Road is cleaning its fleet of trains daily, instead of every 72 hours. It is evaluating the effectiveness of antimicrobial biostats applied over disinfected surfaces to form a barrier that theoretically can inhibit the virus for days or weeks. Ultraviolet light, known to kill viruses, is also under evaluation.
The CDC says that there is no need to disinfect a place once it’s been vacant for seven days since it is assumed that the virus won’t survive on any surface longer than that. But the public may soon return in force to public facilities, where they are in close quarters with the most dangerous source of infection — other people.
Peter Raynor, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health with an expertise in measuring exposure to aerosols and airborne viruses, said that while viruses could transmit from contaminated surfaces, the primary means of infection from the SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is “through the air,” he said.
“Keeping physical distancing is probably much more important than disinfecting, though that might have some benefit,” he said. While disinfecting the air is difficult, he suggested running HVAC systems at as high a rate as possible, bringing in outside air, and using a high level of filtration to dilute the amount of suspended viruses. “We don’t have a great idea of what an infectious dose is, but less is better,” he said.
Dr. K.C. Rondello, clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing and Public Health at Adelphi University, said that no single strategy, whether social distancing, decontamination, or even a vaccine, would provide “a silver bullet in isolation.” Decontaminating surfaces is worthwhile, “Especially compared to not doing it, but there are significant limitations,” he said.
His worry is that people will take false reassurance from the decontamination of public spaces and grow lax in taking precautions, he said.
“This is the greatest concern of all,” he said, “that people consciously or unconsciously will feel that mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing are all less important now because we are now decontaminating the public spaces like subway cars. Those strategies are just as important now as they ever were in fighting COVID.
“I think the idea that we are going to go back to a pre-COVID normal any time soon is a fantasy,” he added. “In the absence of having a vaccine, proven drug treatments, or immunity, the only tools we have in the arsenal are the public health tools we’ve been using. The idea of stopping using those tools prematurely is extraordinarily frustrating.”
Cleaning companies said they’ve been called into businesses, offices, stores, and residential homes where people infected with COVID-19 were present to deep clean and disinfect.
“The business owners will take pictures of us disinfecting the property and post it online so their social media followers will see they are taking measures to keep it sanitized,” said Derek Miller, president of Clean Up Kings in Lindenhurst. “Some are having us come weekly or twice a month.”
The cost would vary by job — given the size and contents of a property — but in commercial properties it could range from 35 cents to 50 cents a square foot, Miller said.
High touch areas such as light switches, doorknobs, handles, touch screens, and countertops should be cleaned frequently during the day, said Steed, who said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted guidelines for disinfecting public places, health facilities, and residences, as well as a list of approved disinfectants to kill the coronavirus.
Daniel Costa, operations manager for Restoration 1 of Long Island, said some calls were coming in, but many businesses were holding off deep cleaning until getting a firmer date for reopening. While disinfecting a property was no guarantee that it wouldn’t quickly be recontaminated, he said, “It is to bring the affected space back to zero … they have to be able to start at zero to have a chance of avoiding infection through proper behavior.”
Officials caution that as public spaces such as beaches, parks, and playgrounds reopen, people should not let down their guard or assume life is back to normal.
Lance Price, director of Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at The Milken Institute School of Public Health of The George Washington University, advises not letting up on daily precautions. “I’m a microbiologist and I think about it all the time,” he said. “I live with a 9-month-old and two 72-year-olds, and I’m the guy who goes out to buy the groceries.” He carries a spray bottle of 70% alcohol, he said.
“I spray down the cart handle, I’m wearing a mask, then every time I handle something I’m very aware this thing could be contaminated. And every so often I’m spraying my hands,” Price said.
He added, “Every day our lab is screening hundreds of nasal swabs testing for COVID-19 and I feel like I’m at greater risk when I go to the grocery store.”