Cleaning Your Work Surfaces: One Way to Help Flatten the Curve

Disclaimer: This article distills information from various sources that are current as of 03/19/2020 but is not a substitute for professional advice from health authorities or your local institution. The article is for informational purposes only and should not be seen as professional advice. This content is the personal expression of the author and not necessarily endorsed by the author's employer.

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The importance of keeping work surfaces clean

Keeping our work areas clean is always a good practice but even more so now to help stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (Note: SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus whereas COVID-19 is the name of the disease it causes).2,9 There are some simple things each of us can do that, if we all are diligent, can have a big impact on how the next several months play out for everyone.32

Current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1 states:

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-199 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through fomites.12 Current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning ... surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-1913...

While surface contact may not be the main way the virus spreads, multiple sources3,4,5 suggest various strains of Coronaviruses8 can remain viable in the air for hours or on different surfaces for days. A pre-publication study specifically of SARS-CoV-24 concludes it remains viable on cardboard for up to one day and on plastic or stainless steel for up to three days.

What surfaces do we need to consider cleaning? What cleaning solutions work? How often should we be cleaning?

What surfaces to clean?

You should routinely clean, with a disinfecting solution of some kind (see below), any surface and object that you touch in your work, even if infrequently. Obviously, this includes your computer keyboard, mouse, and monitor, as well as the desk area immediately around these. However, it is easy to forget about the other things in our office areas we touch apart from our computer.

This cleaning guidance also includes your office chair armrests, telephone dial pad, handset and headset, your mobile phone(s), your whiteboard and dry erase markers, light switches, door knobs, coffee cup handle, eye glasses, and even your badge. If you tend to carry around a laptop that you set down in various places to work, wipe down any place before you set the laptop down, and wipe your laptop (bottom and top) again after picking it up.

A critical piece of electronics to clean is your mobile phone. Why? Many people set their phone down on various surfaces, carry it into the bathroom, and, of course, frequently touch and hold it as well as bring it to their ear and face. That last part is especially problematic. So, keep your phone and the case/holder clean. And, maybe don't set it down just anywhere.

Ideally, you would use a different wipe each time you clean a surface. That probably isn't practical. On the other hand, don't use a single wipe to clean everything in your office area either. If you can, its best to use gloves when cleaning. But, since most of us don't have easy access to a box of disposable gloves, just remember to wash your hands after you've finished cleaning your office surfaces.

[Flatten the curve. Image courtesy of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris,]

When and how often to clean?

The time to clean is now and every day. Given the potential for asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-211, we should keep our work areas clean regardless of whether anyone around us has been sick, tested positive or has been in recent contact with someone who tested positive.

It is best to clean your office area just before you sit down for the day to work. That single time per day is probably sufficient for most offices. However, if you work in a high traffic area or if you share your work area with others, you (as well as your office mates) might want to consider making a pass over all the items in your office area a few times a day.

What about common access areas such as bathrooms, meeting rooms, and elevators, as well as the equipment associated with these areas? While it doesn't make sense to spend your own time continually cleaning these areas, you may want to carry some portable wipes with you to wipe the areas you will be using just prior to your use of them. Alternatively, carry some tissue you can place in your hand to push a switch or grab a door handle.

What cleaners to use?

Some electronics are sensitive to common household cleaning solutions. Using the wrong cleaners can cause surface discolorations or negatively effect display surfaces. So, you want to take care that you won't damage your electronics but will still do an effective job of cleaning the surfaces.

Be sure to check with your local organization's health or custodial staff regarding cleaning solutions and supplies. They may have specific products to use and rules you need to follow.

While the CDC has provided only minimal guidance on the types of cleaners6 that both kill the virus and are safe for sensitive electronics, a number of sources17,18,19 indicate a solution with a minimum of 70% isopropyl alcohol26 (e.g. rubbing alcohol) onto a microfiber cloth will do.15 Other options include diluted solutions of bleach or hydrogen peroxide or even just vigorous wiping with soap and water.25,14 In any case, if you are concerned about possible damage, of course test the cleaner in a small, unused area first and wait a few minutes for it to dry to see if it causes a discoloration. If a noticeable residue is left after using a cleaner, use a new, dry microfiber cloth to buff out the residue.

Just a few days ago, on March 9, 2020, Apple changed its guidelines16 for cleaning Apple products to endorse a 70% alcohol solution.

The science behind the scenes

The whole point of simple actions like these and other social distancing34 measures is to help flatten the curve.33 Health care systems can care for a slow and steady stream of patients. What they cannot handle is an exponential-growth-driven tsunami of cases all at once. Under those conditions, a lot more people who would otherwise get excellent care in helping fight a disease are at much greater risk of dying.

We note that members of our own HPC/CSE community are playing a critical role in helping track and fight the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

  • Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard.27,29
  • How China is using AI to fight Coronavirus.28
  • Forbes article on ways AI is being employed to fight COVID-19.30
  • Using mobile phone data to track an outbreak.31
  • A simple Kahn Academy lesson on estimating actual vs. confirmed cases.37
  • Some simple, 2D simulations demonstrate value of social distancing.36

Other things to keep in mind

For those who are either sensitive to household cleaning chemicals or simply want to be more environmentally friendly, unfortunately there are not many studies or data indicating the effectiveness of natural, common DIY solutions21 like vinegar, tea tree oil, or witch hazel. Most of the expert guidance is that these products are not sufficiently effective. During the current outbreak it may not be the best time to experiment.

The guidance on person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is definitive. It enters through the mucus membranes including the mouth, nose, and eyes.7 On average, people touch their face 23 times each hour.20 This means anything on the surfaces you touch you will almost certainly bring to your face or to other surfaces22,23 you touch.

In addition to preventing the spread the virus, it is also important to take care to not contribute to the spread misinformation.35

Finally, apart from cleaning your office area surfaces regularly, keep your hands clean by frequent washing with soap and water for 20 seconds. Note that overuse of alcohol based sanitizer will likely dry your skin to the point of cracking, creating a new vector for infection rather than preventing one. Try not to touch your face. When you cough or sneeze, cover it.24 Remember, you are protecting not only yourself but also those around you. The most vulnerable among us10 (the elderly and those who are diabetics or have heart or lung disease) will appreciate your efforts in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Author bio

Mark C. Miller is a computer scientist supporting the WSC program at LLNL since 1995. Among other things, he contributes to VisIt, Silo, HDF5 and IDEAS-ECP. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.



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