The Ongoing Importance of Scrubbing Up During a Pandemic


October 15 is Global Handwashing Day and we're looking at the impact hand hygiene has on keeping us safe and healthy, especially during a global pandemic. Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

Amid the second wave of a global pandemic, the timing couldn’t be better to consider the impact hand hygiene has on keeping us safe and healthy.

According to the international coalition, Global Handwashing Partnership, by helping rid our hands of infection-causing germs, handwashing with soap helps protect against respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.


The Science of Spread


Clean hands are so important because touching surfaces and then touching our eyes, mouth, or nose before washing our hands is one of the most common ways we expose ourselves to viruses.

Consider results from an early study published by The New England Journal of Medicine that showed SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — can survive on plastic for as long as 72 hours; on stainless steel for as long as 48 hours; on cardboard for nearly eight hours; and on copper for four hours.

Then consider a study from 2015 — there aren’t a lot on the subject, but that will likely change — that found, on average, participants touched their faces 23 times in an hour. And, here’s the clincher — 44 per cent of the time it involved contact with a mucous membrane i.e., mouth (36 per cent), nose (31 per cent), eyes (27 per cent), or all three (6 per cent).

The good news is coronaviruses are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill. In its recommendations to reduce spread of COVID-19, the Public Health Agency of Canada says an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is only necessary when soap and water are not available. (And you can use regular household cleaners to disinfect surfaces at home, and regularly for high-touch ones like door handles and toilet flush levers.)


The Travel Bug


Highlighting its importance, a study published in the journal Risk Analysis, just before the outbreak began late last December, estimates that improving handwashing rates in just 10 of the world’s leading airports could significantly reduce the spread of many infectious diseases — and, asked after publishing, the authors say that would apply to the COVID-19 outbreak as well.

They also estimate that, on average, only about 20 per cent of people in airports have clean hands — washed with soap and water, for at least 15 seconds, within the last hour or so. The other 80 per cent are potentially contaminating everything they touch with whatever germs they may be carrying.


Happy Birthday


So wash your hands often. And do it thoroughly. Based on the evidence, experts recommend washing for as long as it takes to hum your way through “Happy Birthday” twice, or for between 15 and 30 seconds.

Of course if you’re tiring of “Happy Birthday,” like everything else about the pandemic, take inspiration from some celebrity handwashers. In March, People posted a collection of stars sharing their coronavirus handwashing songs, including The Rock, Neil Diamond and Gloria Gaynor. After all, what’s more apropos than the 77-year-old Gaynor’s hit “I Will Survive” as we ride out the second wave?