Five questions for microbiologist
author of “The Germ Code” and “The Germ Files.”
Q: How would you describe our hygiene routines at the beginning of the pandemic?
A: When we first started seeing this novel coronavirus, we heard a whole bunch of things that, to be honest, were pretty scary. We followed every order, locked ourselves down and bought out all the hand sanitizer.
Then in April, the New England Journal of Medicine had a piece about how long the virus could live on surfaces. That changed everybody’s perspective. It was, “I need to wipe my slice of bread with disinfectant.”
Q:Has that thinking changed since April?
A: Now we know that the risk is typically the highest within the first two hours, when droplets are still wet. Low-touch surfaces—like the mail, takeout containers and a can of tomato sauce—don’t need to be wiped down all the time.
Q:Shortages in hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies haven’t helped the cause. How did we adapt?
A: One of the beautiful things that happened: When the run on disinfectant, hand sanitizer and toilet paper happened, some companies saw this as an opportunity. Many pivoted to provide supplies to reduce the spread—talk about American ingenuity!
Q:What are you seeing as fall turns into winter?
A: There has been a 14% drop in hand washing, the American Cleaning Institute found. We have lost everything we gained in the beginning.
Q: Will the pandemic permanently change the way we think about cleaning?
A: Once the pandemic ends, I expect the focus on cleaning, disinfection and hand washing will do the same. While some people may continue to stay vigilant, the majority most likely will simply forget what it was like. To wit, I have talked with people about how they remember the 2009 swine flu pandemic. In short, they don’t.
Ms. DeCarbo is a real-estate columnist for The Wall Street Journal in South Carolina. Email her at [email protected]
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