Among the many features of life that Macalester students likely remember from last spring, alongside scrambled spring break itineraries and cancelled classes, was the shortage of cleaning wipes that plagued stores across the country as consumers rushed to hoard disinfectants to combat COVID-19. Such shortages were predicated on the assumption that COVID could easily be transmitted from one person to another by way of a shared surface, like a doorknob. Over a year later, businesses across the country continue to place credence in this theory, devoting great time and expense to the regular cleaning of shared surfaces. Indeed, these same fears of surface transmission have heavily impacted the physical landscape that on-campus students inhabited this year, from closures of shared spaces where cleaning was thought to be difficult to the ubiquity of the hand sanitizer stations located across campus, not to mention the members of the custodial staff who have been tasked with vigilantly disinfecting elevator buttons and door handles. Yet a recent pronouncement by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has cast doubt on the efficacy of such measures. In light of this recent acknowledgment, decision makers at Macalester would be wise to prioritize more effective measures such as vaccinations, mask usage and social distancing, rather than the fastidious disinfection of surfaces.
These updated guidelines governing the cleaning of shared surfaces came during an early-April press conference held by CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Wallensky. While warning Americans to remain vigilant due to the continued presence of contagious variants nationwide, Wallensky noted that while “people can be affected with the virus that causes COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects…evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.” Other infectious disease experts, such as Virginia Tech’s Linsey Marr, cheered the proclamation, noting that, “there’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface.” “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Rutgers New Jersey Medical School microbiology professor Emanuel Goldman added in an article to The Atlantic. Indeed, given the paucity of evidence that touching contaminated surfaces constitutes a serious source of COVID transmission, some cynical observers have accused businesses across the nation of engaging in “hygiene theater;” assiduously cleaning shared surfaces to endear patrons with a false sense of security while simultaneously allowing riskier behaviors, such as violations of social distancing and masking guidelines.
These recent revisions to the scientific consensus have possible ramifications for Macalester’s COVID-19 prevention policy. For instance, these findings provide compelling evidence that spaces that have been closed owing to the perceived challenges of cleaning shared surfaces, such as the computer lab or the library’s reserve stacks, ought to be reopened. The difficulties of cleaning a keyboard, for instance, should be no obstacle if the risk of COVID transmission via that surface is remote, particularly given the impact that the closure of shared spaces like the computer lab have on students who lack dependable internet access through a personal device, not to mention the annoyance of the interminable outages that plague the wireless printers across campus. Yet perhaps more dangerously, continuing to place emphasis on a futile form of COVID prevention has real mental costs that could suppress Macalester’s ability to combat future waves of infection. Over a year since the pandemic began, many individuals have understandably begun to chafe at continued restrictions on their behavior. As fatigue towards COVID-related measures only continues to grow, Macalester’s continued emphasis on surface disinfection, manifest in the way that students are urged to wipe down dinner tables and study areas, could reduce the student body’s willingness to heed other, proven prevention measures, such as social distancing and mask usage. Then there’s the financial cost of the mobile units sent weekly to spray shared surfaces. Perhaps this money could be spent refurbishing the now-fading dots urging students to maintain physical distance in heavily trafficked surfaces across campus. Macalester’s continued low case count speaks to the willingness of the administration and student body to dutifully follow public health guidelines. As the college looks towards finals and a fall during which COVID will hopefully no longer constitute such a formidable public health risk, it would be a shame for the college to continue to place such faith in a now-discredited health measure.