Should I be worried about COVID-19 and clothing? Experts say it depends on your job
TORONTO -- The rapid spread of COVID-19 has left many Canadians grappling with newfound complexities to everyday tasks.
Amid constant warnings to practice good hand-washing and maintain physical distance from others, Canadian officials have warned that the rate of community transmissions is on the rise, leaving many with questions about the potential of being exposed to the virus and bringing it in into their homes.
Among those questions: can the virus live on my clothes? And, if so, should I take my clothes off in the garage and immediately wash them?
In the health-care field, this practice is known as “donning and doffing,” used to explain the proper protocol for putting on and removing personal protective equipment (PPE) without spreading germs or contaminants.
It’s a term you wouldn’t normally hear outside of a hospital setting, but it’s gaining traction as people navigate life during a pandemic.
But health-care experts and frontline workers say the average Canadian shouldn’t worry about practising good donning and doffing techniques—unless they are working in health care or highly trafficked areas.
“It depends on the work you do. People who are working in grocery stores [for example] are now coming into contact with a lot of different people and their clothing may be at increased risk of touching multiple surfaces,” Dr. Anna Banerji, tropical disease specialist at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca by phone.
“I think for the average person, going out into the street or going to get groceries, it’s not a high risk.”
According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is transmitted through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are spread when a person with the virus coughs, sneezes, or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person.
Though there is still much to be learned about the novel coronavirus, preliminary research suggests that the virus can live on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.
A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that traces of the virus are detectable for up to four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
The study did not look at how the virus fared on fabric, nor has specific research has been done into how the new coronavirus lives on clothing.
“Unless someone is coughing on you, or your clothing is in contact with a high-contact surface, it’s not so likely [that the virus would remain on your clothes],” said Banerji, noting that it’s our hands that are the biggest threat when it comes to spreading the virus.
Banerji adds that if you are using gloves while out in public you may not be protecting yourself as much as you think.
She notes that people may still be guilty of touching their face while wearing gloves, defeating the purpose, and failing to remove them properly, therefore spreading germs into their own environment.
“We see a lot of people using the gloves just like their hands and it does give them a false sense of security,” she said.
“For someone in a hospital setting where you have a gown, gloves, mask, face protection and you know how to put it on and off in the proper way that reduces your risk.”
However, if you are a health-care worker or work in a high-risk exposure setting, taking a little extra care in your laundry practices might not be a bad idea.
“I certainly think people who work in higher-risk exposure settings, like health-care workers, may want to take extra caution in terms of changing their work attire,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV News.
“Maybe having a dedicated laundry solution for their clothes when they're changing out of them and washing them at high temperatures… I think for everyday people, you probably don't have to do that. Let's not forget, you shouldn't be out of your home very often anyway.”
For those who want to be extra diligent, Lisa Bryski, a retired emergency room doctor from Winnipeg, recommends taking off your street clothes in the laundry room -- should you have one – immediately putting your clothes in the laundry and washing your hands thoroughly.
“Some people may not have laundry facilities right in their home, that’s when you should have a separate basket or bag for your laundry,” she told CTVNews.ca by phone. “Limiting where you are in the house is the big thing.”