The U.S. government dipped its toe into similar waters on Sunday, ordering a mandatory two-week quarantine of all travelers inbound from Hubei province. Two-thirds of Americans feel that the virus is a “real threat,” according to an NPR poll released yesterday, and a sense of need for forcible action is pervasive. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have mobilized to work on an emergency vaccine. Face masks have sold out in many places, despite little evidence that they are helpful outside of specific situations.
Amid so much concern and resource allocation, many people remain dismissive of the most widely accepted, simple advice to slow the spread of most viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies around the world have one clear, concise, definitive recommendation: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
Last week on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah captured the standard response to that advice when he joked, “Wash your hands? Scientists always warn us about some new, weird death virus, and then when we say, ‘What’s the plan?,’ they’re like, ‘Uh, wash your hands.’” The audience laughed. “That’s not a plan!”
Hand-washing does seem extremely obvious—which may be the problem. Those of us who have lived our entire lives removed from epidemics of cholera and other deadly hygiene-related outbreaks haven’t witnessed the power of hand-washing and take it for granted. But it may be the single most important thing any given person can do to help stop and prevent outbreaks.
Respiratory infections are diseases we very often give to ourselves. People are told to cover their coughs and sneezes, but studies show a vast majority don’t wash their hands after doing so. Someone carrying the pathogenic microbes might shake your hand, or touch a doorknob or desk that you later touch. Once you pick them up, if you touch your face, the circle is complete.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much people have changed their hand-washing habits since the outbreak first made headlines a month ago; comprehensive studies have not yet been published. But America’s general history of focusing less on evidence-based preventive behaviors than on billable treatments does not bode well, nor does our health-care system’s tendency to prize newer, marketable products over the cheap and obvious ones.
To get some vague sense of whether the long-standing 20-second guideline is suddenly resonating widely, I asked people on Twitter whether their hand-washing length has changed in recent weeks. A few people told me that they’re becoming more conscious of others’ behavior—and that they’re especially grossed out when witnessing the three-second spritzes or performative soapless washes. But no one said Yes, I’ve started to actually wash my hands properly. I never really used to do it. While that’s likely not something people are eager to admit, suboptimal standards seem common even among those who you’d think would be most meticulous. “Sometimes researchers who work in labs with viruses don't take that much caution in washing their hands,” Robert Lawrence, a biochemist and science writer, told me.