New studies coming out of Australia now suggest that COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for up to 28 days. This alarming news poses significant implications for healthcare organizations. In a recent webinar regarding contactless check-in solutions, we asked the audience about their primary interests regarding implementation of contactless check-in solutions for their hospitals.
The number one reason for seeking contactless check in was to help mitigate disease transmission from patient-to-patient and patient-to-staff through infected paper-based patient consent forms and pens. Does the science support this being a realistic threat?
28 Days Later
Recent findings from Australia’s National Science Agency prove that COVID-19 can survive on certain surfaces for up to 28 days. Scientists found that smooth non-porous surfaces, such as glass, allow for greatest survivability of the virus over time. By contrast, surfaces that were porous, such as cloth, did not provide as friendly of an environment for the coronavirus to survive. Furthermore, as with most other viruses, survival over prolonged periods out in the open is improved when temperatures are on the cooler side, in dryer, less humid surroundings, and in the dark where UV light cannot reach it. In other words, COVID-19 can survive for longer periods of time on smooth surfaces when it is dark, and the temperature and humidity are ideal. The robustness of COVID-19 is also more pronounced when compared to the average flu virus, which can survive under similar conditions for up to 17 days.
The Real World vs. Lab Conditions
Some have criticized the Australian National Science Agency for this study for potentially creating anxiety and panic among the general population. Admittedly, I was concerned when reading the headlines suggesting that the coronavirus can exist on surfaces for a full 28 days. What many may fail to realize is that the controlled lab setting of this study, where the coronavirus survived for so long, is difficult to replicate in the real world. Normal fluctuations in temperature, humidity, UV light, and so on would present perils to the coronavirus, making a 28-day lifespan unlikely.
The most significant criticism of the Australian study highlighted by Professor Ron Eccles, former director Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, was the lack of human mucus used in the study. "Viruses are spread on surfaces from mucus in coughs and sneezes and dirty fingers, and this study did not use fresh human mucus as a vehicle to spread the virus," he said.
"Fresh mucus is a hostile environment for viruses, as it contains lots of white cells that produce enzymes to destroy viruses and can also contain antibodies and other chemicals to neutralize viruses.
"In my opinion, infectious viruses will only persist for hours in mucus on surfaces rather than days."
The Court of Public Opinion
So as a hospital, what do you do with this information? Does this mean that there is zero risk of transmitting COVID-19 through surface contact? The Centers for Disease Control specified in a Media Statement in May that:
“The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person. Based on data from lab studies on COVID-19 and what we know about similar respiratory diseases, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the patient, which is the basis of the court of public opinion. Can you tell frightened patients to not worry about catching COVID-19 by using pen, paper, or eSignature capture devices because the likelihood is lower? Only if you want terrible reviews and a bad reputation is this advised. As the saying goes, “perception is reality,” and if the patient is worried or scared, you must keep in mind that they are human, and they need to be reassured that their health and safety is a priority.
Using Faster Registrations to Prevent COVID Transmission
Considering the results of the Australian study, the limited survivability of the coronavirus in human mucus, and the current climate of fear and anxiety about the pandemic, where does this leave hospitals? Yes, you should limit the surfaces that patients touch, including paper-based consent forms, but if you consider that the primary way the virus is spread is through inhaled respiratory droplets, the best thing you can do to protect your patients and staff from transmission is to reduce the amount of people and time they spend in your waiting rooms. The faster you can process the patient inside the building and get them where they need to go, the safer everyone is. It is impossible to overlook the importance of pre-registration protocols that set the stage for a fast and easy contactless check-in.
The idea that COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for up to 28 days is a scary proposition, but it has only been proven to survive that long in a controlled lab environment, not in the real world. The various environmental conditions of the real world combined with the hostile environment of human mucus will most likely prevent the virus from living on surfaces that long. Even so, it is important to recognize that COVID-19 can still be transmitted across contaminated surfaces, and it is critical to be diligent in disinfecting surfaces to reduce the opportunity for infection and to assure your patients that you are doing everything you can to ensure their safety. When considering that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted from person to person in enclosed spaces, however, the best thing you can do is to reduce the amount of time your patients spend in enclosed spaces such as waiting rooms. Best practices in expediting the patient registration process are being tested and formed right now in hospitals across the globe. We are seeing this firsthand as hospitals are looking to us for superior contactless check-in solutions.