The risk of catching COVID from surfaces is remote; why not stop disinfecting?

‘COVID theatre’ doesn't reflect the fact that surface transmission is rare

By William McGinn

Century Theatre in Lindsay uses a fogger to spray seats with hospital-grade disinfectant after shows. Photo: William McGinn.

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were filled with speculation, educated guesses on the part of the medical community, and mostly a lot of unknowns.

Playgrounds went idle. Mall parking lots became a skateboarder’s dream.

Hand sanitizer became an in-demand commodity. We sanitized everything we touched and then we did it some more.

Dr. Helen Scott, an epidemiologist who lives in Kawartha Lakes and who also works for the World Health Organization, said, the initial focus on surface transmission emerged because of what we know about other infectious diseases.

“In hospitals, pathogens like respiratory syncytial virus and norovirus can cling to bed rails or can travel from one patient to another on a doctor’s stethoscope,” Scott said.

It made sense, then, in those early days to treat the novel coronavirus as exactly that — a new pathogenic threat that could insidiously get to us in several ways. Around the world and here locally, business owners and organizations that operated a public space reacted based on that information.

Steve Podolsky, manager of Lindsay’s Century Theatre, said he was told at the beginning of the pandemic that transmission of the virus from surfaces was more likely than any other way of getting COVID.

Shelly Hardaker, owner of Smitty’s Restaurant in Lindsay, recalled in the beginning that scientists were fairly certain that to catch the virus, “contact had to be very direct. Then there was a theory floating that the virus could live on surfaces for extended times.”

But that has been proven not to be likely. “At this point,” said Scott, “hundreds of studies now suggest while surface transmission is possible, it seems to be rare. We have since learned COVID-19 outbreaks all point to the majority of transmissions occurring as a result of infected people spewing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols when they cough, talk or breathe.”

In other words, the virus is significantly more airborne, and proper indoor ventilation and social distancing are the proper ways to stay safe. Even when the virus does linger on surfaces, there’s a low chance of it causing an infection. Someone would have to cough or sneeze on a specific surface, and then the next person would have to touch it before it died off and immediately touch their eyes, nose, or mouth — an unlikely combination of events.  

The relentless charge to continue to sanitize anything that someone touches has been called “COVID theatre,” suggesting this is nothing much more than a performance to reassure the public. However, putting on a show of safety first may be hard to stop at this point.

The Century Theatre has a contract with a local company that maintains the building’s HVAC units and changes filters four times a year. The other theatre workers, Sheila Dominic and Bill Howell, use a fogger machine to spray down theatres with a hospital-grade disinfectant after shows. Loud as a vacuum, the machine kills COVID five minutes after contact, but is also billed as environmentally friendly and food safe.

The term COVID theatre “is entirely unjust when it comes to a clean environment, particularly when it involves the food service industry,” said Hardaker at Smitty’s. “We cleaned and sanitized thoroughly, long before the outbreak.” 

Scott, the epidemiologist, said while some may criticize governments for failing to provide clear guidance and funding on how to improve indoor air quality, “the reality is, there is no easy fix, and precise ventilation or air-purification specifications to make indoor spaces safe are not known. Given this gap in our knowledge, it is difficult to calculate cost-effectiveness of various mechanisms for reducing transmission.”

Abhi Arya, supervisor of Your Dollar Store With More in Lindsay, explained that as well as providing sanitizer at the door, staff also clean the carts every 30 minutes before returning them to their place near the outside front door. She said they have adapted to the new processes, which also include sanitizing the store’s public washrooms every three hours.

Hardaker noted her customers comment regularly that “They feel safe here because when we sanitize and clean, it gives people comfort.”

Podolsky agreed, saying the extra work is worth it if people feel safe while enjoying the movies.

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