September 18, 2020

Weekly line: Is America's cleaning frenzy just 'sanitization theater'?

Daily Briefing

    Many businesses and households have taken cleanliness to a whole new level to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, with some businesses spending millions of dollars on new cleaning techniques.

    How Covid-19 is changing the future of the health care industry

    Is it working?

    Americans are getting serious about their cleaning

    When I write that many people have taken cleanliness to a whole new level, I really mean a whole new level. One of the best examples is in this tweet shared by the National Football League's Denver Broncos, which shows players walking through a contraption that sprays them with sanitizer on their way to practice.

    The Broncos aren't the only ones to employ this strategy. Magnolia Bakery, has installed "cleansing chamber[s], analogous to the disinfecting airlocks outside biohazard labs," at its New York City locations, writes Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Anyone entering the locations has to walk through the chambers, which "bath[e]" their "entire bodies … in ultraviolet light for 20 seconds," according to Mims. He explains, "Based on years of research, scientists say they are confident this particular type of UV light is lethal for viruses and bacteria, but safe for humans."

    Other businesses have looked to improve indoor air quality by installing filters in their ventilation systems that can "catc[h] even the finest particles, including ones as small as the coronavirus, so that air ducts aren't spraying a fine mist of recirculated, potentially virus-laden droplets all over everyone who walks by," Mims writes.

    Individual Americans are taking their own precautions. For instance, the Washington Post's Maura Judkis writes that Steve Hasegawa—50, of Oakland, California—said he wears a pair of old bike gloves in public so he doesn't have to touch surfaces with his bare hands. And Dawn Shapiro—67, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida—routinely sanitizes all of her groceries, counters, and door handles, Judkis reports.

    According to Judkis, "Americans seem determined to Clorox their way to absolution," by "wiping down soccer balls, Lysoling beach chairs, touching PIN pads with 'touch tools' and gloves, and cleaning bags of Tostitos with diluted bleach."

    Why the cleaning frenzy?

    The sanitizing frenzy emerged at the start of the pandemic, when scientists believed contaminated surfaces were a major mode of coronavirus transmission. As a result, public health officials told Americans they should avoid touching their faces, wash their hands frequently, and frequently sanitize high-touch areas.

    All of which remains good advice, as those tactics can ward off the spread of a host of infectious diseases. Susy Hota, a clinician investigator who specializes in infection control at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, told Judkis, "A lot of the stomach viruses that cause stomach flus—those horrible, gut-wrenching stomach flus we go through in the winter times—you know, many of those are transmitted through the contact route." (And it's worth noting that, in health care settings, these sanitizing methods are always important for combating the spread of potentially harmful pathogens.)

    But as scientists learn more about how the new coronavirus spreads, they've discovered it most often transmits through droplets and aerosols in the air, not through things we touch. As Judkis notes, CDC for months now "has told Americans in no uncertain terms that … [w]hile it may be possible to catch the coronavirus from a doorknob or a package, it's a long shot, and 'not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.'"

    As such, public health experts say many recent sanitization efforts won't do much to halt the virus's spread. For example, scientists in a recent study in the  journal Public Health called so-called "disinfection tunnels," such as the contraption used by the Broncos, "a wasteful expenditure of scarce resources," and noted "[t]he World Health Organization has condemned the use of these sprays and tunnels."

    Peter Raynor, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, told Judkis, "Walking through a fine mist for a few seconds … I don't think it probably does any good, and if it does any good, it's very small."

    Experts say staying at least six feet away from others, wearing a face mask or covering, and avoiding crowded spaces that aren't adequately ventilated are the best steps members of the public can take to prevent transmitting or contracting the coronavirus.

    If deep cleaning isn't helping, why are we still doing it?

    So why are we still frantically sanitizing surfaces—and ourselves—if it's not doing much to curb the coronavirus's spread?

    "Security theater" has a lot to do with it, according to Judkis. She writes, "The term 'security theater' went mainstream post-9/11 to describe the anti-terrorism measures that didn't do much to prevent terrorism at all. Things like making mothers dump out bottles of breast milk at airport security checkpoints, or random bag checks on the Metro, which did not thwart any attacks. The whole show of it seemed part of the idea—possibly the main part."

    According to Judkis, the coronavirus epidemic "has given that show a sequel, and a new term: 'sanitization theater.'"

    Hasegawa told Judkis that although he's "realize[d]" that wearing his old bike gloves in public won't "change anything" when it comes to coronavirus transmission, he "feel[s] bad" if he doesn't wear them. "Maybe it's just sort of a sign that I'm one of the people that's careful, you know? … In a way, it's performative," he said.

    And Shapiro told Judkis that her grocery sanitizing routine "makes [her] feel better." Shapiro said, "I feel safe, and it doesn't take that much time, and it's not that much effort to give me peace of mind."

    But while some may think there's no harm in upping their cleanliness game, others say Americans' focus on sanitizing could backfire.

    Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, in a commentary published in The Lancet wrote that while he doesn't "disagree with erring on the side of caution … this can go to extremes" that aren't "justified by [scientific] data." Goldman separately told Judkis that excessive sanitizing "actually gives people a false sense of security. And what they really should be doing is focusing on the main routes of transmission of this disease, which is breathing."

    But even though extreme sanitization measures may not be effective, Anthony Capozzoli—a Covid-19 safety czar at Restaurant Associates, which manages eateries for museums and other institutions—told Judkis they're likely here to stay.

    Capozzoli explained that, for consumers, there's "a delicate and necessary balance between the perceived safety and the actual safety" of measures aimed at mitigating the coronavirus' transmission. And because of the need to achieve both goals, he said, "I think this level of sanitation is here to stay."

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