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July 19, 2021

Why hand-washing is an essential habit—even past the pandemic

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 7, 2022.

    While some pandemic-era habits will likely fade as more people get vaccinated, routine hand-washing is one key behavior that we should hold on to, Jane Brody writes for the New York Times.

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    Why hand-washing is so important

    To help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, CDC recommends that—in addition to other precautions—you should  routinely wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

    Specifically, CDC recommends washing your hands often and especially after certain activities that could lead to the spread of germs, such as touching your face, using the restroom, handling a mask, or coughing or sneezing.

    Soap and water help break down the fat and protein layer around the coronavirus, which then allows the virus to be washed away. If soap and water are not available, you can use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol instead.

    America's history of poor hand hygiene

    Before the pandemic, Brody writes, most people didn't follow consistent hand-washing habits.

    For instance, a 2012 survey of 1,000 American adults found that only 71% of people washed their hands "regularly," while more than half had either seen someone leave a restroom without washing their hands or had not washed their hands after being on public transportation. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they did not wash their hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses.

    Even health care workers were not always diligent with their hand-washing habits, Brody writes. In one 2020 study, for instance, the authors said that, "as nurses, we are aware that hand-washing has not always been taken as seriously as it should, with compliance and adherence in clinical settings far from optimal over time." In fact, only 40% of nurses complied with hand-hygiene guidelines before the pandemic, according to multiple reports from different countries.

    The authors encouraged everyone—medical professionals and non-medical populations—to continue washing their hands "once the pandemic is over."

    However, although people's hand-washing habits improved during the early months of the pandemic, many people have not kept up the habit consistently over time. A study published in April in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed hand hygiene compliance at the University of Chicago Medical Center and found that while compliance peaked at 92.8% on March 29, 2020—near the start of the pandemic—it had dropped to 51.5% by August 15, 2020, just a few months later.

    Additionally, a survey from Bradley Corporation, a commercial bathroom fixture company that frequently conducts surveys on hand-washing habits in the United States, found that in January only 57% of Americans said they washed their hands at least six times a day, down from 78% in April 2020.

    How to wash your hands properly

    The coronavirus, including the highly contagious delta variant, continues to spread, and people who remain unvaccinated are at an especially high risk of being infected. Protective measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing, are all important in helping prevent the spread of the virus, according to public health authorities.

    To wash your hands properly in everyday situations, CDC recommends following these steps:

    1. Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply plain soap;
    2. Lather up your hands and then rub them together, making sure to get between your fingers;
    3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, counting or humming the "Happy Birthday" song twice to time yourself; and
    4. Rinse your hands before drying them on a clean towel or allowing them to air dry. (Brody, New York Times, 7/12)

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    Get the facts


    There are a lot of myths and misconceptions circulating about the progress of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout—and these can have very real implications for the United States' recovery.

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