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On the surface, it’s obvious: Keeping home clean in pandemic times just makes sense

Safe to say, many of us have done some deep cleaning at home as COVID-19 lurks outside. Or perhaps someone in your home got diagnosed with the disease.

COVID-19 is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2 that spreads primarily person-to-person via respiratory droplets, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less likely, it’s possible to get sick after contacting an infected surface, then touching the mouth or nose before hand-washing.

While transmission from surfaces with the virus hasn’t been documented, evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 might remain viable for hours to days on certain surfaces, the CDC says. A recent study found the coronavirus can survive as long as 4 hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Regular cleaning of home surfaces is considered a good practice anyway to prevent infection from more than just this virus. But that doesn’t mean obsessively, said University of Washington microbiologist Marilyn Roberts, who offers several tips.

“With this virus, it’s still way more important to maintain social distancing, stay home and not touch your face,” said Roberts, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences who studies antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Still, she said highly touched surfaces should get wiped down once or twice a day, including kitchen, dining and bathroom areas. That also can include door handles and light switches.

Start with soap and water

While you might be tempted to grab a disinfectant wipe for a quick rub across surfaces, it’s more important to clean first with soap and water, Roberts said.

Here’s why: Disinfectants are meant to work on relatively clean surfaces.

“You have to clean surfaces first before you disinfect,” Roberts said. “Then if you want to disinfect it, you can afterward.

“On surfaces where you’ve got food particles, bodily fluid, dirt or even juices from chicken, they all have organic material, which will inactivate the disinfectant before it gets to the bacteria. The disinfectant is intended to work on the microbes, which includes COVID-19.”

Should you clean with paper towels or reusable towels?

One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but Roberts said if you use paper towels, toss them right away in the trash when you’re done. For reusable towels after cleaning, clean them in a washing machine at the highest temperature. Sponges can go into the top of a dishwasher also at the hottest setting.

Roberts uses microfiber cloths for cleaning and then puts them in the washing machine on high heat.

Also be careful with disinfectant wipes if they start drying out, she added, because continued wiping might just spread around what you’re trying to prevent.

Clean more if someone’s sick

Increase household cleaning if you have someone in your house who is sick, whether you suspect or know it’s COVID-19 or any other respiratory illness.

Roberts recommends isolating the sick person as much as possible in a bedroom. Others in the house should practice frequent hand-washing and staying the recommended 6 feet away from the ill person.

Other tips include:

Have the sick member use a separate bathroom if possible.

Don’t share personal items. That includes toothpaste.

Serve the individual’s food on disposable plates and cutlery, and, after the meal, directly dump those items in the garbage.

“They should have disposable dishware and possibly eat in their bedroom so they are physically isolated from the rest of the group, whether that is from family or roommates,” Roberts said. “If someone is providing food, leave it at the door, and the person can pick it up.”

If regular dishes are used, they should be cleaned using the dishwasher’s hottest setting.

Wash clothes and bedding in hot water.

Clean and disinfect carefully around anything the sick person has touched.

Provide your sick household member with a clean disposable face mask to wear at home, the CDC recommends.

If disinfectant runs out

If you run out of disinfectant, a few do-it-yourself mixtures can work.

To disinfect your phone or other tech, use 70% rubbing alcohol or a 1:1 mixture of alcohol and water in a spray bottle. For durable surfaces such as sinks or toilets, mix a 1% solution of bleach with water.

The CDC offers online information and tutorials on disinfectant solutions. Alcohol or bleach can be corrosive on certain surfaces, so research is best.

You also can use soap and water for many items.


There’s probably no need to clean and disinfect here. “The likelihood is not super high that a package would transmit anything,” Roberts said.

If there’s any worry, perhaps let packages sit out for a while. Regular mail also is considered safe.

The CDC offers additional guidance on this.

“Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” the agency says.

Overall health

Regular cleaning steps in the home also might prevent the spread of other viruses and foodborne illnesses or reduce allergy reactions, Roberts said.

“It’s a good idea to do regular cleaning regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not,” she said.

“You should vacuum; you should declutter as much as possible. There are other illnesses you can get, and people have allergies and asthma. There’s pollen that comes into the house, so cleaning makes perfect sense on a regular basis.”

Clean up after every meal. If dishes with food remnants stay out for long periods, mold can develop and bacteria can grow, Roberts said. It also can attract pests such as ants.

Other areas for some daily attention include bathrooms, she said. In the laundry room, you don’t want dirty, sweaty clothes sitting for days, either. “If you have sweaty clothes, they can start growing bacteria. Dirt from the outside garden can bring all kinds of things in.”

But in the current pandemic fight, Roberts said two steps rank higher than cleaning – social distancing and washing your hands. “There is limited to no data suggesting that people have picked up the disease from contaminated surfaces,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not possible; it just means the chances are low,” so cleaning is just another precaution.

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