It’s Time to Talk About Covid-19 and Surfaces Again

Beth Kalb was worried about the pews. This summer, the century-old Catholic church she attends in a small town outside Minneapolis had, like many places, reopened its doors with new rituals of disinfection. Kalb had quickly noticed the side effects. The varnish on the pews had begun to wear, and the wood was often sticky with disinfectant, so the volunteer cleaners had started using soap and water to remove the tacky build-up. They were weeks in, and it had already come to cleaning off the cleaner. Plus, all those chemicals couldn’t be good for the people who were spritzing and wiping down the worship space after each use. As a nurse, Kalb knew the importance of handwashing, but this all seemed like a bit much. It was certainly too much for the wood.
sanitation workers cleaning stairs

Everything You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Here's all the WIRED coverage in one place, from how to keep your children entertained to how this outbreak is affecting the economy. For Erin Berman, in Fremont, California, it was the books. In the spring, a federal project to help reopen libraries, called Realm, had commissioned tests to see how long the virus lasts on objects they lend. Researchers had borrowed materials from the library system in Columbus, Ohio, and applied an inoculum of the virus to them in a nearby lab to see how long it could remain infectious. They started mainly with books, measuring how much virus was left after a day or two, but in subsequent months, expanded to magazines and DVDs and USB drives. In August, a fourth round of tests addressed the question of placing books in stacks, rather than laying them out individually. Protected from light and drying air, the researchers were able to find virus particles on them after six days. On leather book covers, a fifth round of tests determined this month, the virus lasted at least eight days.
The Realm organizers emphasized that none of what they were reporting was guidance—it was research, meant to inform the staff at individual libraries who were deciding what to do with all those items gathering dust, and possibly germs, in people’s homes. However, they also noted it was not possible to disinfect every page of every book. So many library staffers, after seeing the data, were considering “book quarantines” that lasted a week or more.Berman was aware of the practical issues raised by putting books in purgatory for so long, but she had a broader concern: that all this research was encouraging an undue fixation, or even a fear, of the objects librarians are meant to joyfully share with the public. It was hard to understand what those numbers—the number of days, the number of viral particles that remained—actually meant for spreading Covid-19 via books, but their very existence had generated anxiety among her coworkers. And she suspected that it was drawing focus away from all the other things she and her colleagues had to do to reopen safely—to reimagine a community space in which people could no longer safely linger, in which social connection would now be mediated by Plexiglass. “I started to get very frustrated. I’m thinking, ‘We’re librarians. We should be doing research,’” Berman says. “Of all the industries, we should not be operating in fear.”
For Emanuel Goldman, a virologist at Rutgers University, the worries began with the gentle nagging of his elderly mother-in-law. “She was telling me, ‘Wipe down this, wipe down that,’” he says. He had been obliging at the start of the pandemic. The requests seemed reasonable—a set of small acts to keep his household safer. He knew from other viruses that fomite spread—the technical term for passing on a virus via objects—was possible, and at that time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had little guidance on SARS-CoV-2. But as he delved into the research himself, he grew concerned. Despite all the fixation on how long and how much virus lasts on surfaces, there wasn’t much evidence at all that it was relevant to how Covid-19 actually spread. In July he laid out those concerns in a tersely worded commentary in The Lancet titled “Exaggerated risk of transmission of Covid-19 by fomites.”