2021-03-01

Hygiene Theater Is Still a Huge Waste of Time in Fight Against COVID-19

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Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic:

Six months ago, I wrote that Americans had embraced a
backwards view of the coronavirus. Too many people imagined the
fight against COVID-19 as a land war to be waged with sudsy
hand-to-hand combat against grimy surfaces. Meanwhile, the science
suggested we should be focused on an aerial strategy. The virus
spreads most efficiently through the air via the spittle spray
that we emit when we exhale — especially when we cough, talk
loudly, sing, or exercise. I called this conceptual error, and the
bonanza of pointless power-scrubbing that it had inspired,
“hygiene theater.”

My chief inspiration was an essay in the medical journal The
Lancet called “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by
Fomites.” (Fomites is a medical term for objects and surfaces
that can pass along an infectious pathogen.) Its author was
Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey
Medical School. At the time, Goldman was a lonely voice in the
wilderness. Lysol wipes were flying off the shelves, and it was
controversial to suggest that this behavior was anything less than
saintly and salutary. Other journals had rejected Goldman’s short
essay, and some were still publishing frightening research about
the possible danger of our groceries and Amazon packages.

But half a year later, Goldman looks oracular. Since last spring,
the CDC has expanded its guidance to clarify that the
coronavirus “spreads less commonly through contact with
contaminated surfaces.” In the past month, the leading scientific
journal Nature published both a long analysis and a sharp
editorial
reiterating Goldman’s thesis. “A year into the
pandemic, the evidence is now clear,” the editorial begins.
“Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems
to be rare.”