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

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.”

Thursday, 11 February 2021