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Editor's Note: The following article was written exclusively for OFFGRIDweb by Morgan Atwood of NoOneComing.com. If you haven't already read Atwood's previous article, What You Need to Know About Masks for COVID-19, we highly recommend you do so — it provides guidance for safety outside the home, while this article focuses on safety inside the home.
The world is currently in the grip of a pandemic illness, COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In these times keeping a clean home environment is common sense. However, questions arise about what defines clean when a virus is concerned. How do we keep our home disinfected from a highly infectious virus we cannot see?
To answer this, we must first understand how the virus is transmitted. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted directly between people, and indirectly by contact with contaminated surfaces. When SARS-CoV-2 infects someone, the virus invades cells and replicates. This replication causes viral shedding, where the virus is carried out of the body on secretions from the nose, mouth, and eyes. These particles of mucous, saliva, and rheum carry active virus, and can be passed to others by contact, inhalation, or landing in an opening like the mouth.
Surfaces become contaminated when these expelled particles land on them. Contaminated surfaces, or objects, can then transfer the infection to people or other surfaces by contact. To reduce our potential for infection we need to prevent not just direct transmission but also indirect transmission. The recommended practices for hand washing, covering coughs, and avoiding touching our faces goes a long way toward this. The remaining piece is keeping the home disinfected, and disinfecting things that come in from outside.
Transmitting the virus from outside the home to inside is probably the most concerning to many people. We have all seen those in public who wear no mask, look by touching, and sneeze and cough openly. It’s easy to picture those folks contaminating surfaces or objects. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has a limited survivability outside of a host, but that varies depending on where it is. Aerosol particles can survive for at least 3 hours, but once they land the virus can survive for different lengths of time on different surfaces. On copper the virus only survives for about four hours. On cardboard and paper, the virus can survive for about 24 hours. On plastic and stainless steel, that survival extends to at least 72 hours.
The package you received today probably has no surviving particles from its origin point. The bag of frozen broccoli you bought, however, may still have viable virus on the surface from a sneezy shopper before you. Any handling those items received before coming into your hands could also be a source for contamination. The checker at the grocery store, or your mailman, may feel fine and have no symptoms, but could still be infected and shedding viral particles. Current medical thinking is that many infected are asymptomatic, and that many others begin viral shedding before displaying any symptoms.
Inside the home, many will feel more confident that the risk is lower, but we shouldn’t be careless about things. Given the potential for asymptomatic spread, prudence should compel us to disinfect the home as well. Home disinfection also provides a redundant strategy to prevent infection, reducing the likelihood of bringing infectious material into the home while also actively targeting any that came in anyway.
One of the most important things to know about SARS-CoV-2 is that soap and water effectively kill it. SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus, meaning the viral RNA is protected by a lipid layer. This fatty shell is destroyed by soap, exposing the virus to be rapidly inactivated. Our fundamental tool against this virus is soap and hot water. Beyond that, we do not need exotic disinfectants or extraordinary measures to disinfect surfaces. As the medical community has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, much research has been done on disinfectants. Leading the way are three household staples: alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and common household bleach (sodium hypochlorite).
Alcohol, as commonly found in medicine cabinets across the country, at concentrations of 70% or more, is effective at inactivating the virus, with 1 minute or more of exposure time. Exposure time means allowing the disinfectant to dwell on the surface long enough to be effective.
Bleach, in as low a concentration as 0.1%, has a similarly rapid ability to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Mix 4 teaspoons of bleach to 1 quart of water, and use to disinfect surfaces, leaving for at least one minute before wiping away. Bleach solutions quickly lose potency, so do not pre-mix and leave for later use.
Hydrogen peroxide, another family medicine cabinet staple, is also an effective disinfectant against SARS-CoV-2. At a concentrations of 0.5% or higher, hydrogen peroxide is effective with at least one minute of contact.
Other disinfectants can be effective as well. The EPA has published a complete list of commercial disinfectants that are effective against the COVID-19 virus. Included on the list are disinfectants appropriate for soft surfaces, like carpets and furniture, that can’t be wiped with bleach or the like. Also included are most disinfecting wipes from well recognized brands. Wipes do not require preparation, and are perhaps easiest to use, just wipe down and let dry. Also take note of things that aren’t on the EPA list of disinfectants. Although commonly touted, cleaners like vinegar and ammonia do not appear on the list.
Cleaning and disinfection are not the same. Cleaning removes pathogens and dirt from materials, disinfection inactivates pathogens. Surfaces that need cleaning should be cleaned, then disinfected. You should wear disposable gloves when cleaning and disinfecting, and then wash your hands thoroughly when finished. Take care with disinfectants, as various household cleaners and disinfectants do not mix well. You should never mix bleach with another household cleaner, or disinfectant, as many toxic gases can result. Other combinations, such as hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, can produce similar toxic gases. Refer to manufacturer directions for all cleaning and disinfecting products, and research them prior to any combinations, or avoid combining altogether.
The most frequently touched surfaces and objects are the first thing we should focus on disinfecting. If we accidentally bring SARS-CoV-2 into our home, or a family member is shedding viral particles, these things are the most likely to become contaminated. Disinfect the following regularly:
It is important to note that devices are a high priority for disinfection, but are also sensitive electronics. Many manufacturers have guidelines for how to clean their devices, but >70% alcohol can be safely used on most electronics if it is not allowed to pool on the surfaces.
The next thing we should be disinfecting is anything that comes into the home from outside. Different methods will be appropriate for different items: You wouldn’t want to wash a package, but you would wash apples. Things to disinfect before, or as soon as, they come inside include (but aren’t limited to):
Ideally, as many items as possible should be disinfected outside the home before bringing them in. All store purchases could be put into a plastic tub, brought to the front door/garage, then disinfected and set to the side for the disinfectant to evaporate. Shoes, similarly, should be taken off and disinfected outside. Clothing is more challenging, unless a secluded entryway is available, but should be carefully removed as soon as possible and washed. Be very careful in handling items like clothing, as shaking can aerosolize infectious particles off the surface.
The other outside the home object to disinfect is our vehicle. If we or objects we transport have been potentially contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 particles, contact contamination of the vehicle is likely. We can minimize this risk with a few steps, such as hand washing before reentering the vehicle, avoiding extra touching, and using washable seat-covers and washing them regularly. Any purchases or pick ups should be placed outside the passenger compartment if possible. Placing these items into a plastic bin in the trunk or cargo area, which can be removed entirely and disinfected, would further limit contamination risk.
Disinfection of the vehicle after use is similar to home disinfection: Clean surfaces with soap and water, and then disinfect with an appropriate disinfectant. Wear personal protective equipment, and open the doors and windows to allow airflow to vent both infectious particles and cleaning fumes. Focus on the most frequently touched surfaces, handles, steering wheel, knobs, and controls, and any area that has had contact with outside items or people. To disinfect screens and displays, use alcohol or a manufacturer recommended disinfectant wipe. For fabric upholstery, use an EPA recommended disinfectant appropriate for porous surfaces.
Fundamental home cleanliness goes a long way to maintain health at any time, but becomes truly essential during a pandemic. As more and more people fall ill, good overall habits of cleaning and housekeeping with these few additional steps of disinfection performed regularly can make the difference for your family.
Morgan Atwood has taught and written about survival, field medicine, and protection for over a decade. His website, NoOneComing.com, offers survival gear, training opportunities, and educational articles based on his 25 years of experience living and working in remote places. Atwood has worked as a wildland firefighter, anti-poaching consultant, and knifemaker, and is the author of several books, including “Civilian Tactical Self-Care Guidelines,” “How To Stay Alive Down There,” and “Good Medicine for 96 Bad Hours.”