“Based on available epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors,” the CDC concluded, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.” In other words: You can put away the bleach, cancel your recurring Amazon subscription for disinfectant wipes, and stop punishing every square inch of classroom floor, restaurant table, and train seat with high-tech antimicrobial blasts. COVID-19 is airborne: It spreads through tiny aerosolized droplets that linger in the air in unventilated spaces. Touching stuff just doesn’t carry much risk, and more people should say so, very loudly.
I’ve been writing about our misplaced obsession with surface hygiene since the summer. Like many, I spent the early months of the pandemic dunking my apples and carrots in soap. That was before I read a persuasive essay in the medical journal The Lancet by Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School: “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” (In medical jargon, fomites are objects and surfaces that can transmit an infectious pathogen.) This opinion ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of the broader scientific community, and Goldman told me that several journals rejected his essay. But he was not alone in his quest. Writers such as my colleague Zeynep Tufekci and researchers such as Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, were also outspoken in their insistence that we needed to focus on ventilation rather than surfaces, windows rather than Windex. They were rebuffed, not only by loudmouths on Twitter and on TV, but by other scientists who clung stubbornly to an outdated view of viral spread.