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Experts say don’t go overboard on the sanitizing

Disinfecting wipes, spray and hand sanitizer.
Disinfecting wipes, spray and hand sanitizer.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

NEW YORK — Cleaning wipes are harder to find on store shelves, and businesses are reassuring customers with stepped up sanitation measures. In New York, the subway system is shut down nightly for disinfecting.

To avoid any traces of the coronavirus that might be lurking on surfaces, Americans have been wiping down groceries, wearing surgical gloves when they go out, and leaving mail packages out for an extra day or two. But experts say the national fixation on scrubbing sparked by the pandemic can sometimes be overkill.

“It’s important to clean surfaces, but not to obsess about it too much in a way that can be unhealthy,” said Dr. John Brooks, chief medical officer for the COVID-19 response at the Centers for Disease and Control.

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Health officials knew less about the virus in the early days of the pandemic, but say it’s become clearer the main way it spreads is between people — through the respiratory droplets they spray when talking, coughing, sneezing or singing. It’s why officials emphasize the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.

That doesn’t mean surfaces don’t pose any risk — cleaning is still recommended — especially frequently touched spots like door knobs or elevator buttons that infected people might have recently touched. Other germs that sicken people, like gastrointestinal bugs, haven’t gone away either.

But with COVID-19, experts say to keep the risk in perspective: The virus is fragile and doesn’t survive easily outside the body for long. Early studies finding it could linger on surfaces for days used large viral loads and were in laboratory conditions, not the real world. Other tests might just detect remnants of the virus, rather than live virus capable of infecting people.

Viruses also don’t leap off surfaces to infect people, and infection would require a sequence of events: There would have to be enough surviving virus on whatever the person is touching, the person would have to get it on their hands, then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

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All that means there could be diminishing returns to all the disinfecting, especially if people have good hand washing practices.

For public health experts, the challenge is telling people exactly where they should draw the line, especially if cleaning isn’t doing any harm.

What counts as overkill could also vary depending on the situation, said Justin Lessler, an expert in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University.

While Lessler wouldn’t wipe down his own groceries, for example, he said it might not be a bad idea for people caring for someone at high-risk for becoming severely ill if infected.

“These are things that maybe are on the lower end of how much they actually reduce risk. But they’re relatively easy and cheap,” he said.

And in nursing homes, Lessler said vigilance about disinfecting surfaces makes sense.