Every business is doing their best to alleviate public concerns about COVID-19 and run a safe and efficient workplace where employees and customers are confident you’ve taken every precaution to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But with the science evolving at a daily rate, and so much still left unknown about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it’s hard to be sure that you’re taking the right measures.
At Pro Housekeepers, we know a thing or two about keeping an environment clean and sanitized, and we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to understanding how coronavirus tests for surfaces work, and if and when surface testing is necessary.
Pro Tip: Because SARS-CoV-2 is a new coronavirus, scientists are learning more about it every day. Always check the CDC or other trusted authority for the latest news and advice.
How COVID-19 is spread
How the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted has been the subject of fierce scientific scrutiny, as countries around the world work to minimize the risk of contracting the coronavirus. We know that SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets, which we all emit every time we talk, cough, or even breathe. Other people inhale those droplets and contract the virus. That’s why wearing a mask and social distancing are vital to containing the spread of COVID-19.
However there is a growing body of evidence that shows that the virus can survive in respiratory droplets that remain suspended in the air (airborne particles) or settle on surfaces. These factors increase the risk of transmission to people even if everybody follows mask mandates and keeps six feet apart. Somebody could cough in one aisle of a grocery store, and the droplets could still be in the air five minutes later when another person walks through them. Or you could follow an asymptomatic person at the checkout and touch the same buttons on the credit card keypad. That’s why it’s increasingly important to understand the risk of surface transmission and conduct routine testing to reduce the risk of infection and ensure we all stay safe during the pandemic.
What are the real chances of catching covid from surfaces?
The idea of taking as many precautions as possible and yet still contracting COVID-19 is scary, but what’s the real risk of catching the coronavirus from a surface?
Initial studies painted a scary picture. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that viable SARS-CoV-2 virus was detected on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and active virus was detectable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel. Other studies detected live virus on surfaces after 4 days or even 6 days. SARS-CoV-2 has a higher surface survivability rate than the flu or SARS, which is caused by another coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1).
Up to 4 hours
Up to 8 hours
Up to 1 day
Up to 3 days
Up to 3 days
Up to 4 days
Up to 5 days
Up to 5 days
Up to 5 days
These early studies, however, didn’t tell the full story. Critics pointed out that surface survivability tests were conducted with extremely high quantities of the virus — more than would naturally land on a surface in a real-world setting — and the subsequent tests for live virus detected quantities that in all likelihood were too small to actually infect a person. Whether or not a single virus cell can survive long-term under ideal conditions in a lab has little bearing on whether or not you’re at risk of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces at a grocery store or restaurant.
Dean Blumberg, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, believes surface transmission is possible, but “You’d need a unique sequence of events.” It takes more than a single viral cell to cause an infection, and although the exact quantity is still in dispute, it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of particles to trigger a critical viral load. That means in real-world scenarios, in order to contract COVID-19 from a surface, firstly the surface would have to be loaded with enough viral particles to be infectious — for instance if someone sneezed on it, or touched the surface immediately after coughing into their hand. Then that surface would have to be touched by someone else within an hour or two, and they would have to almost immediately touch their mouth, nose, or eyes in order to become infected.
Although the chances of surface transmission of COVID-19 are slim, they do occur. The CDC published a study of 71 known cases that occurred in Heilongjiang Province, China, after an asymptomatic traveler touched an elevator button. Although the traveler followed all the appropriate precautions regarding self-isolating, their downstairs neighbor in their apartment building became infected, and from there the virus passed through 70+ people and two hospitals. Genome sequencing of the virus strain positively linked all the cases to that single traveler.
Another study, from South Africa, linked one patient to approximately 120 cases and 15 deaths in a single hospital. Scientists determined that the virus was likely spread between wards by medical staff — not because they were infected, but through the instruments they used and surfaces they touched. “We think in the main it’s likely to have been from [staff] hands and shared patient care items like thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and stethoscopes,” study leader Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, concluded.
How businesses and workplaces can prevent surface transmission of COVID-19
One factor in our favor as we work to contain the coronavirus is that SARS-CoV-2 virus itself is easy to destroy. The virus has a lipid envelope, meaning its outer membrane is made of fat. Any substance that is designed to break down fat — for example, soap — is enough to kill the virus and eliminate the risk of transmission. However that requires knowing where the virus is on a surface in order to clean effectively. If even a small area is overlooked during cleaning, active virus can remain on surfaces and continue to pose a risk to employees, clients, and customers.
Regular surface testing can help secure a premises and mitigate the risk of surface transmission of COVID-19 by:
- Confirming which surfaces are likely to contain virus particles
- Identify gaps in current cleaning protocols
- Understand the efficiency of established cleaning methods
Many high-touch points often go overlooked during routine cleaning, or are not cleaned often enough to prevent the spread of germs and viruses.
When was the last time these areas were cleaned in your workplace?
- Light switches
- Door handles and push/pull plates
- Reception desk counters
- Computer mice and keyboards
- Coffee machines and microwaves
- Chair backs
- Stair rails
Most business premises used to rely on nightly cleaners to keep their workplaces sanitized, but during a pandemic, that might not be enough. While measures to prevent cross-contamination, such as providing each employee with their own headset, closing break rooms, and wiping down desks and computer equipment between shift changes, can mitigate risk, they do not allow for human error. Handing a colleague the phone rather than transferring the call, only giving areas a cursory wipe after use, or failing to use appropriate cleaning solutions properly, can all result in contamination remaining in areas that are presumed to be clean.
Case study: High school classroom
As more and more schools return to in-person teaching, avoiding a major outbreak is of primary concern to communities all across America. Encouraging teenagers to keep any area clean is a battle most parents know only too well, so how can schools ensure the safety of students as they move between classrooms?
John Smith is the principal of a larger suburban high school with over 1000 students. When the school reopened, he put measures in place to protect the students and staff from contracting COVID-19. All students must be certified well to attend school each morning by a parent or guardian, and the school is operating a reduced timetable with only 50 percent of students in school each day.
In classrooms, students sit at individual desks with a plastic partition on three sides to reduce airflow. The teacher remains at their desk behind another partition, and all employees and students must wear masks at all times. At the end of each class, every student uses a spray bottle of disinfectant and disposable paper towels to wipe down their desk and partition. Each night, the school is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected by the janitorial department.
The school had worked extensively with the local health department to put into place measures that John Smith felt would be effective at combating the coronavirus, and that students could be trusted to follow correctly.
Despite these precautions, a cluster of cases was linked to two classes that used the same classroom. John Smith ordered a COVID-19 surface test kit to understand where the school’s precautionary measures had failed. He discovered that many desks, chairs, and partitions all tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
After speaking with teachers about what went wrong, John Smith learned that many students didn’t know how to correctly use the cleaning solutions they had been given. They weren’t using enough solution, or were wiping the desks and partitions dry before the solution had a chance to kill any potential pathogens. Students were also overlooking cleaning chair backs, which almost all of them touched whenever they sat down or stood up. And the individual bottles of cleaning solution that the students used to sanitize their desks were all found to be contaminated, because none of the students were cleaning the cleaning equipment.
Armed with this knowledge, John Smith adjusted the school’s cleaning protocols in order to account for the mistakes that had been made. Each lesson ended a few minutes earlier, to allow time for the cleaning solution to air dry between classes. Students were also given a checklist of places to clean, including their desks, partitions, chairs, and the cleaning bottles themselves.
Finally, John Smith had each student carry a bottle of hand sanitizer to use before and after they cleaned their desks. Further testing for SARS-CoV-2 was carried out two weeks later, and John Smith found that the school had reduced its levels of contamination by over 95 percent.
How does surface testing for coronavirus work?
Surface testing couldn’t be easier. SARS-CoV-2 surface test kits contain ready-to-use swabs that can pick up contaminants and store them safely in a stable solution for delivery to the lab. Simply choose the appropriate size surface testing kit for your workplace, swab your surfaces, label each swab with the area that has been sampled, and return the kit to the lab. Most kits come with prepaid overnight shipping and lab results are available through a secure online portal in a matter of hours, giving you fast, trustworthy feedback on the safety and effectiveness of your current cleaning protocols.
Using a test kit is very straightforward — the most important factor is ensuring you swab all the surfaces that could be contaminated. Many places that are overlooked during cleaning can be as easily overlooked during swabbing. That’s why before testing your workplace, it’s a good idea to examine each room and consider how it is used (not just how it is intended to be used!) and identify what areas are mostly likely to be high risk.
How reliable is COVID-19 surface testing?
When testing swabs for any kind of virus, there are two commonly used methods of detection. The first tests for live virus by growing particles inside host cells to see if they multiply. This is the gold standard of testing, but it is also time consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Growing a dangerous virus requires biosafety level 3 lab conditions, including hazmat suits, biological safety cabinets, and other precautions. That puts live virus testing out of the reach of most businesses, which need faster, more cost-effective solutions.
RNA testing is the next-best option, and the most readily available for businesses. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid that carries the gene sequence for some viruses — it’s basically the virus version of DNA. Using this method of testing, machines can scan swabs to search for SARS-CoV-2 RNA and provide an immediate answer as to whether or not the RNA is present. This doesn’t mean that the live virus itself has been detected, or that the particles on the swabbed surface are capable of causing an infection, only that coronavirus particles (dead or alive) were on the surface when it was swabbed.
If RNA can still be detected after the virus has been destroyed, what use is RNA testing? For property managers wanting to keep their premises safe, RNA test results are still a valuable tool. This type of testing can quickly identify high-risk areas where the virus is likely to be deposited, in order to better direct cleaning protocols. It can also provide an early warning system, alerting managers when an asymptomatic host is present. If several rounds of RNA testing show no signs of coronavirus on surfaces, then suddenly a new test returns positive for RNA, it’s a good indication that somebody in that workplace has contracted the virus, even if they don’t have any symptoms. This makes surface testing an important tool for monitoring for SARS-CoV-2.
|LIVE VIRUS||RNA TEST|
|Identify if SARS-CoV-2 is present in sample||Yes||Yes|
|Determine if the sample is infectious||Yes||No|
|Results in <24 hours||No||Yes|
|Affordable for small businesses?||No||Yes|
|Useful for detecting high-touch areas?||Yes||Yes|
|Useful for detecting ongoing outbreak?||Yes||Yes|
Case study: Call center office
Jane Doe manages a 24-hour call center with three shifts of 50 employees at her location. The staff handle sensitive financial data that cannot be accessed remotely. In order to mitigate the risk to her colleagues from COVID-19, each employee is temperature checked before entering the building, and Jane Doe has implemented several new sanitizing protocols.
Each employee works in an assigned cubicle with dividers, which help reduce the risk of infection, and every member of staff wears a mask while in the building. All employees have their own headset and work at a fixed computer terminal. When shifts change over, Jane Doe has introduced a staggered handover so employees have time to sanitize their workstations both as they are leaving and before they begin work.
The center’s janitorial staff work around the employees during staggered breaks to keep the office sanitized, and perform surface swab testing once a week. Jane Doe is pleased to note that testing inside the call center shows no traces of SARS-CoV-2 RNA.
When a swab does come back positive for viral RNA, Jane Doe is able to identify the employees who have used that cubicle and place them on leave for two weeks to quarantine, thus catching a potential outbreak before it began and keeping all of her employees safe.
Ideal testing areas for COVID-19 surface testing
All kinds of private businesses and public-facing premises can benefit from using surface bacteria testing kits, including:
- Sanitation and cleaning companies
- Internal janitorial departments
- Schools and colleges
- Gyms and recreational facilities
- Office buildings
Any premises where a significant number of people enter and exit on a regular basis can incorporate surface testing into their cleaning and sanitation protocols in order to provide the safest possible environment. Cleaning and janitorial companies can also offer surface testing to clients as a way of identifying high-touch points, and to provide peace of mind to clients that their cleaning methods are effective.