FACT CHECK: Does sanitizing surfaces make a difference in preventing the spread of COVID-19?
MOSTLY TRUE. Sanitizing surfaces is not as important as physical distancing, hand washing, or wearing masks for containing the spread of COVID-19. However, it still kills viruses that may be living on surfaces, and could encourage people to take other precautions.
Sanitizing surfaces has been a major part of the effort to stop COVID-19. As the Canadian economy reopens, businesses like restaurants and bars are sanitizing surfaces and requiring that masks be worn by customers and staff. Public health authorities suggest that citizens regularly disinfect their homes, while transit systems have been sanitizing trains and buses in an effort to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.
There have been recent reports, however, that much of the deep cleaning is “hygiene theatre” with limited effect. In The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson argued that “an obsession with contaminated surfaces distracts from more effective ways to combat COVID-19,” pointing out that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various medical researchers believe that surface transmission is quite rare.
It’s true that while surface transmission is possible, it is not considered to be a major source of transmission. However, research in this area is difficult—people who may have been infected via surface transmission have often spent time with an infected person as well—and there’s still uncertainty about how often it happens. More important is the fact that COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person via droplets, so sanitizing an indoor space while allowing groups of people to get together is not the most effective strategy.
However, sanitizing surfaces isn’t likely to cause people to neglect other preventative practices. The people who place emphasis on cleaning could be more likely to take other health measures as well, as clinical psychologist Steven Taylor told the Canadian Press. At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization had concerns that wearing masks would lead to less hand washing or physical distancing, but studies now suggest that masks either have no effect on hand washing or may be associated with washing your hands more often. A team of researchers at the British Medical Journal suggest that masks could even act as a psychological cue for other healthy behaviours like physical distancing.
Overall, sanitizing surfaces is less effective than methods that prevent the spread from person to person, such as physical distancing or washing your hands. However, it’s still one action you can take to reduce your risk of catching COVID-19. On top of that, it appears unlikely to provide a false sense of security, and might even remind people around you to take health measures seriously.