It’s been more than a year since the Coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. — and along with it, lots of new disinfecting and hygiene practices. Some parts of our infection prevention routine, like mask wearing and physical distancing, are still as important as they were last spring. Other practices aren’t as significant to our safety as we once thought.
“We’ve had a year to have a better sense and much more confidence about our understanding of how this virus spreads,” says epidemiologist Melissa Hawkins , director of the public health scholars program at American University. “So I think it’s important to acknowledge how some of the things have changed from what we thought early on.
The major change is the likelihood of surface transmission, or becoming infected with the virus by touching something — your mail, your groceries, takeout food — and then touching your face.
Early on in the pandemic, it was a good idea to be extra cautious in that regard. But Amesh Adalja , an infectious disease doctor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says while surface transmission can occur, it’s not the primary means or even an important way people get infected with SARS-Cov-2. Home surfaces aren’t the same as lab conditions — and even if the virus can survive on your counter, Hawkins says, that doesn’t mean it’s viable to cause infection. (Unlike bacteria, viruses need a host to survive.)
So what does all that mean for your disinfecting and cleaning routine? Here’s what you need to know about the disinfecting jobs that are still worth doing, and which ones you can relax on.
Which COVID-precaution steps are still worth taking?
1. Disinfecting high-touch surfaces
Early on in the pandemic, out of an abundance of caution, we all disinfected pretty much everything we could. Given recent research about surface spread, Hawkins says you can relax on disinfecting every visible surface in your home. Instead, focus on regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces — your doorknobs, faucet handles, light-switches, the toilet flush handle — especially when someone is sick or has been exposed to COVID-19.
2. Routine hand-washing
Along with physical distancing and mask-wearing, routine hand washing is still a major pillar in preventing the spread of COVID-19 (and really, any illness).
Anytime you’re out, Hawkins recommends washing your hands with soap and water as frequently as possible, and avoiding touching your face until your hands are clean. Surfaces may not be the primary mode of COVID-19 transmission — but since your shopping cart could have fresh sneeze particles on it from another person, it’s important to keep your hands clean in public. And don’t touch your face!
3. Disinfecting a sick person’s laundry (with caution)
If someone in your home is sick with COVID-19, or honestly, any other illness, Hawkins says it’s still a good idea to regularly wash their clothes (and towels and sheets). If you’re taking care of someone who’s ill, wear gloves and a mask when you’re doing their laundry , and wash your hands well afterward. The laundry and dryer cycle should be enough to disinfect any potentially harmful germs. The same goes for cups, silverware, plates, and bowls — avoid letting them sit around and definitely don’t use them until you’ve thoroughly washed them.
4. Disinfecting your face mask
Since the outside of your face mask could contain droplets from someone infected with SARS-CoV-2, it’s important to regularly disinfect your mask (or, in the case of a surgical mask, discard after use). The best way to do that, Hawkins says, is with a regular laundry cycle ( or a dishwasher cycle , if that’s easier!). There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how often you wash your cloth face covering; aim to wear a clean mask every day and wash a few times a week, depending on how many extras you keep on hand.
Another reminder: It’s still a terrible idea to touch your face when you have a mask on, since you could potentially infect yourself with lingering respiratory droplets!
5. Closing the toilet before you flush it
Remember that whole “close the toilet before you flush it” thing? It’s still a good idea, but not because it poses a major risk of infecting you with COVID-19. Theoretically, Adalja says a toilet plume (an aerosol of potentially infectious droplets from the toilet) could get someone sick, but it’s not likely. “I’ve never seen any transmission cases through a toilet plume, and I’ve been working with COVID-19 patients since the beginning,” he says.
That said, it’s not a bad idea to close the toilet before you flush it, Hawkins says, simply because it’s gross to spread poop particles through your bathroom — apparently, there are some other, pre-COVID studies about flushing causing other, less harmful but equally gross germs to aerosol in the area around the toilet.
Which precautions can you safely let go?
1. Letting groceries or mail sit for a few days
Early on, we thought we could bring home the virus from the grocery store or even our own mailbox — and the best disinfectant was time . While, theoretically, Hawkins says a carton of eggs or an Amazon Prime package could harbor germs, it’s very unlikely you’d get sick from them. A better practice would be to wash your hands after putting your groceries away or bringing in the mail.
2. Disinfecting groceries or takeout
Same principle here. If you’re nervous about a box bringing unwelcome germs into your house, washing your hands after you handle it is a better idea than actually trying to disinfect it. And never try to disinfect your groceries or anything you’ll eat with chemicals; Hawkins said that’s more likely to make you sick than the actual virus.
3. Letting clothes sit (or washing them) before you re-wear them
If you’re at the store and someone sneezes on your jacket, go ahead and throw it in the wash. But if you’re in a masked, physically distanced environment, Hawkins says it’s probably OK to rewear clothes without washing them first. If you’re anxious about it, washing them or letting them sit in “quarantine” for a few days won’t hurt. “But surfaces, including fabric, should be a lower priority than making sure you’re washing your hands, wearing a mask, and physically distancing,” Hawkins says.
4. Disinfecting your floors
Technically, footwear can carry the virus, just like clothes can — early studies showed SARS-CoV-2 was found on health care worker’s shoes. It’s a good idea to take off your shoes in an indoor space, but don’t worry about regularly disinfecting your shoes, or even disinfecting your floors . Adalja says he really doesn’t think people are getting infected from shoe spread, unless they’re actually licking the shoe after someone else licked it.
If you have little kids who crawl on the floor, cleaning them isn’t a bad idea. But Hawkins says she’d be more concerned about cleaning with chemicals on a floor where a baby’s crawling than the baby getting COVID-19 from the floor.
The most important thing to remember: It’s OK to be cautious with surfaces, but if you have limited bandwidth for caution, focus on people. “We don’t have super-spreading surface events, we have super-spreading people events,” says Hawkins.
Ashley Abramson is a writer-mom hybrid in Minneapolis, MN. Her work, mostly focused on health, psychology, and parenting, has been featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, Allure, and more. She lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with her husband and two young sons.