We had to wash our hands, said the prime minister. We had to sing a song while washing our hands and only stop when the song was over, the Minister of Health knew. At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought our lives depended on hand washing and not touching shopping carts that had not been disinfected.
We didn’t know any better then. But now it is. The virus, we now know, hardly spreads via the surface and especially through the air.
We have come to understand the danger of indoor spaces, the importance of ventilation and the difference between a cloth mask and an N95. In the meantime, we usually stopped talking about washing hands. The times when you could hear people humming “long may he live” in public restrooms quickly disappeared. And pack wipes and ostentatious workplace disinfection protocols have faded, though bottles of sanitizer are still in place in many places.
If hand washing isn’t as important as we thought in March 2020, how important is it, ask The Atlantic.
Any public health expert will tell you that you still need to wash your hands. Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, considers it “healthy hygiene” to protect us from a range of viruses spread through close contact and touch, such as gastrointestinal viruses.
Still, the pandemic has provided evidence that fomite transmission of the coronavirus—that is, inanimate contaminated objects or surfaces—plays a much smaller role, and airborne transmission a much larger role than we thought. And the same is probably true for other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu and the coronaviruses that cause the common cold, said Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer and aerosol expert at Virginia Tech.
Goldman will present a groundbreaking study in December showing that surface spread of Covid is negligible and likely responsible for less than 0.01 percent of all infections. If that’s true, it would mean that the chances of catching the flu or a cold from touching something are almost nil.
The scientific discussion is not over yet, but if you forget to wash your hands when you leave a store, there is probably no great danger.