In May 2020, experts spoke with U.S. News about effective cleaning after a household member had been isolated at home…
In May 2020, experts spoke with U.S. News about effective cleaning after a household member had been isolated at home with COVID-19. A lot has changed during the pandemic since then, but thorough cleaning and sanitation of living quarters where the virus has circulated is still essential.
Thankfully, the majority of people who come down with COVID-19 disease have mild to moderate symptoms and can safely recover at home. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that someone with symptoms should go into quarantine and use as few rooms as possible, to prevent spreading the virus to others in the household.
Here’s what to know about proper cleaning of a sick room now or in the future — whether the goal is to prevent spreading COVID-19, the flu or any highly contagious virus or bacteria.
Erica Marie Hartmann, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University who focuses on indoor microbiology, is particularly interested in how the use of specific chemicals impacts survival of microbes (germs) that are found indoors.
Viruses are, in many respects, not even alive outside of their hosts. “This means that viruses, novel coronavirus or otherwise, aren’t doing much of anything on home objects except slowly falling apart,” she says. “A virus may be present on an object, but objects themselves cannot actually be infected, and the virus cannot replicate or grow on any object, in your home or elsewhere.”
Over time, the virus on household surfaces disintegrates. “Certain factors can speed up this process,” Hartmann says. “Generally speaking, the longer you leave them, or the higher the temperature is, or the more light they’re exposed to, the faster they will disintegrate.” Approved disinfectant chemicals will also do the trick.
Clean Before Disinfecting
Once the disease runs its course, the room or rooms that the sick person used, along with the objects he or she came in contact with, need to be cleaned and disinfected. Cleaning visibly dirty surfaces, followed by disinfection, is “a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings,” the CDC says.
Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing:
— Cleaning means removing germs, dirt and impurities from surfaces. It does not kill germs, but reduces the number of them on surfaces.
— Disinfecting means using Environmental Protection Agency-registered chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. This is intended after cleaning, and it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.
If you can do so, the easiest way to secure a room after someone in your home has COVID-19 is to close it off for a week, says Colleen McLaughlin, an associate professor of epidemiology with the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York. “If the room is not needed, just close the door for seven days,” she says. The virus will be inactive at that point. “The longer you wait, the safer it is to clean.”
That’s not always practical, however. If you can’t wait that long, the CDC has posted its recommendations for cleaning and disinfection of households with people suspected of having or confirmed to have COVID-19.
Appropriate Disinfectant Products
When it comes to COVID-19, “it’s the same things we recommend if you have someone with flu in your household,” says Melissa Bronstein, director of infection prevention and control for Rochester Regional Health in New York. “The cleaning process doesn’t change.”
Although cleaning steps are consistent, availability was a problem in the early pandemic months with supply-chain shortages and store shelves stripped bare of familiar products. “In 2020, manufacturers were scrambling to get their products certified (by the EPA) to be effective against COVID,” Bronstein says. “But, now, the products we consider effective against flu virus or for many other organisms have also obtained that certification.”
Natural cleaning products may not be strong enough. “You have to be really careful,” Bronstein says. “Some things that they put in natural products can be effective if they’re in the correct concentration. For instance, vinegar can be effective. You just have to get the proportions right.” Over-diluting disinfecting agents can make them too weak. “With some products, if they don’t have EPA registration, it might be because they’re very dilute,” she explains.
“I personally like bleach because I know it’s effective against almost anything,” Bronstein adds. “So for any product that’s got bleach, just look to see it’s got that EPA registration, and you know you’re good to go for almost any organism.”
It’s important to avoid fumes from strong disinfectants. Open a window if possible while cleaning in these confined spaces. “We all have new appreciation for the importance of good air quality,” Bronstein notes. “Especially when you’re using cleaning chemicals, you want to make sure the area is well-ventilated.”
Airing out the room by opening any windows and closing the door is beneficial for another reason. Air circulation will move virus out of the immediate air and help degrade any virus particles in droplets on surfaces, McLaughlin says.
Cleaning and Disinfection Steps
If someone in your household is infected with COVID-19, or recovering from COVID-related illness, have the household member isolate within the home, with a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible. Once they’ve recovered and are no longer contagious, take these steps to clean and disinfect:
— Ventilate rooms by opening windows and running fans.
— Wear gloves and a face mask while cleaning these areas.
— Clean all surfaces in the isolation or sick room with soap or detergent and water, as well as all common areas and high-touch surfaces like bathroom fixtures.
— Disinfect hard surfaces with an EPA-approved product. Follow label directions.
— Give disinfectant time to work by following manufacturers’ instructions on how long to leave the wet product on the surface before wiping it off.
— Clean soft surfaces, such as carpet, rugs and drapes, according to manufacturers’ directions for those materials.
— For clothing, linens and other soft items that can go in the laundry, use regular laundry detergent and the warmest water possible. Avoid shaking dirty linens.
— Use an individual, lined trash can for the person who is sick. When handling trash or disposing of garbage bags, wear gloves and wash hands afterward.
[SEE: How Does Coronavirus Spread?]
What to Clean
If possible, dedicate one bedroom and bathroom for the sick person to use and make sure everyone else uses others. While the person is sick, have them clean the rooms they use if they are well enough to do so. If they are not able, caregivers should wait as long as possible to clean and disinfect the rooms.
If it’s not possible to keep household members fully separate, disinfect all shared high-touch surfaces such as light switches, counters, tables and faucets frequently. Be extra-cautious about wearing masks, using gloves and discarding objects like used tissues in separate trash containers.
Disinfect specifically the objects that the ill person touches or interacts with, Hartmann says. “So, for example, if someone is sick and staying in bed and only getting up to go to the bathroom, pay close attention to the nightstand, the bed linens, the bathroom door handle, the taps, the flush on the toilet,” she says.
Start every cleaning session with clean gloves and a face mask. When cleaning and disinfecting hard surfaces — such as counters, tabletops, door knobs and bed frames — use any household detergent or soap and water before disinfecting. “Soap and warm water works very well at destabilizing coronavirus,” McLaughlin says, by destroying the fatty membrane that holds the virus.
Once they’re clean, hard surfaces can be disinfected using EPA-approved products such as Lysol or Clorox. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, especially on how long you should leave the product on the surface before wiping it off. “Read the label to see how long the surface needs to stay wet. Some say they need to be wet for several minutes,” McLaughlin says. “If you use a spray, leave it on for few minutes before wiping off. If you use wet wipes, don’t use it when it dries out. Then it is no longer effective. You want to see the surface wet and stay wet for a while.”
Hartmann agrees: “Don’t skip the wait step. Disinfection is not instantaneous. For a solution of 5% sodium hypochlorite, which is most household bleach, you want to leave it on the surface for 10 minutes before wiping it off,” she says. “If you’re not giving your disinfectant enough time to do its work, you’re not disinfecting.”
To clean soft surfaces, such as carpets, rugs and drapes, follow the directions for those specific materials. If appropriate, wash them in you laundry using the warmest water temperature allowed for that item.
Linens, clothing and other soft items that go in the laundry can still be cleaned that way. Do not shake dirty laundry; that could spread the active coronavirus through the air. Again, follow appropriate laundry guidelines for the items, and use the warmest water possible. Regular laundry detergent is fine, McLaughlin says. “The water, in addition to laundry detergent and the heat involved with drying — all of those are going to clean and disinfect the clothing, linen and towels.” Remember to clean and disinfect clothes hampers as you would other hard surfaces.
With electronic devices, such as cellphones, tablets, touch screens, remote controls and keyboards, first remove visible dirt and other contaminants. Then follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products, the CDC advises. If you can’t find such guidance, you should consider using alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol to disinfect touch screens. Dry surfaces thoroughly.
“While it’s important to use cleaning products and practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s also important not to go overboard and to acknowledge that your home will not, and should not, be completely sterile,” Hartmann says. “Microbes are around us all the time. They were with us before the pandemic, and they will be with us long after the pandemic is over. And not all of them are bad. In fact, the vast majority of them will not make you sick and may even be necessary to keep you healthy and happy.”
However, do take particular care during outbreaks. With the pandemic, “It really struck me that so much has changed, but cleaning a room for someone who’s sick — that’s not going to change,” Bronstein says. “It’s always been true for flu that we want to be sure we’re cleaning carefully. As COVID makes that transition (such that) we consider it more endemic than epidemic, we just need to recognize that when you use the appropriate product and do the appropriate technique, it really makes a difference for all communicable (infectious) diseases.”
Think of cleaning as part of an overall strategy to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the household. “Because this particular virus spreads most easily through air droplets, mask-wearing is still the most important thing,” McLaughlin says. “People need to be aware that when they’re caring for someone in the house and they’re wearing a mask, they should keep their hands away from the mask. Change your mask frequently. Change your mask when it gets moist. Make sure when you take it off, you take it off by the ear loops or the head loop rather than pulling it by the front.”
Separation is the key, as it has been throughout the pandemic, McLaughlin says. “Staying out of the area where the sick person has been or is still going to be is effective,” she says. “That’s true of any respiratory virus, and not just respiratory viruses but even stomach bugs and things like that. The more you can protect yourself while caring for that person, just distance and separation if possible, will definitely reduce risk.”
Update 03/02/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.