Beyond the Headlines: Security Professionals’​ Take on COVID’s Ability to Spread via Surfaces

Beyond the Headlines: Security Professionals'​ Take on COVID’s Ability to Spread via Surfaces

Since March, headlines regarding how COVID-19 spreads have been nearly as prolific as the virus itself. About two weeks ago, at the end of April 2020, dozens of articles started coming out about how COVID doesn’t spread on hard surfaces. With clickbait-y headlines, these articles seemed like they were in direct opposition to studies that determined it could last anywhere, from minutes to days depending on the material:

  • Paper for up to 30 minutes.
  • Tissue paper for up to 30 minutes.
  • Wood for up to a day.
  • Cloth for up to a day.
  • Glass for up to two days.
  • Banknotes for up to two days.
  • Stainless steel for up to four days.
  • Plastic for up to four days
  • The inner layer of a mask for up to four days
  • The outer layer of a mask for up to seven days

As of June 8, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, “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. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads…”

For security teams deliberating whether or not it’s safe for employees to head back into work, and how they’ll operate once they get there, the CDC’s inconclusiveness mixed with misleading headlines is troublesome. To get a better look at the COVID-19 #ReturnToWork landscape, SimpleSense asked various security professionals their thoughts on the matter through the ASIS Open Forum.

***The following content, including, but not limited to text and images, are for educational and informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for legal or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please see your physician or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions regarding a medical condition. Call 911 immediately if you have a medical emergency.***

Chris Beyer, Emergency Management Coordinator

Chris Beyer, Emergency Management Coordinator

The big factors are:

  • How much is enough?
  • How much is transferred?
  • How much was left on the contact surface to infect?

First, the viral load (how much virus is needed to “make you sick”) is unknown. Samples drawn from patients and those infected show vast differences in their viral load and related cycle threshold value. However, an individual could obtain the required viral load from several places on contact through cumulative actions versus a single contact point.

Second, the contact surface area between a contaminated surface and your body. This is the amount of virus your body removes from the surface upon contact. Then, you need to get the virus from that body surface to your nose, eyes, or mouth, which is another transfer point. Therefore, even if enough virus is on your hand, it does not mean they all get into your nose, eyes, or mouth. For example, we assume the person picks up a full load onto their hands and that full load transfers into their mouth when they touch it. In reality, this probably does not happen.

Third, the current tests utilize 50 as the cycle threshold, which for COVID-19 evidence indicates this might be lower for actual infection; however, the question goes back to point one of how much viral load. Often, the Six Log Kill (99.9999% efficiency) indicates the virus will not infect someone. In the case of anthrax, this still leaves approximately one million spores. I believe the six log kill on a number of these experiments was around the third or fourth half-life. Some experiments went further to 99.999999% or another two half-lives. Since we do not know the viral load, this becomes questionable as to infection, but the other two factors still come into play.

Wesley Bull, Crisis & Risk Advisor, Mantle Advisors

Wesley Bull, Crisis & Risk Advisor, Mantle Advisors

Yes or no, does COVID-19 spread on hard surfaces? The answer, based upon direct sourcing from the infectious disease community, is yes.

Where imprecision comes in, is that the latest research findings suggest that the method of indirect transmission vehicles, such as fomites (inanimate objects that can carry the virus), appear to be quite limited.

I participated in an international COVID-19 conference with Stanford Medicine a bit more than a week ago, where virologists and other infectious disease docs from around the world reported updates and insights. There were clear themes.

Transmission by direct contact with bio-aerosols (sputum, respiratory droplets) is very clearly the major contributor—but that doesn’t tacitly eliminate indirect infection transmission by contact with surfaces.

As Chris Beyer highlights, one of the gating factors is the viral load. Notably, while research is finding that viruses can be detected as “present” on fomites for extended time frames, this does NOT necessarily mean that there is an adequate load to transmit “infection”—a very important distinction that the mainstream media is seemingly glossing over.

Lest we forget, SARS CoV-2 is a virus, a new variant of biological pathogen—one that the infectious disease community is still trying to figure out. This is why the infection control recommendations (masks, gloves, etc.) have had pendulum swings. Old rule book—only those infected, or working with the infected, should wear masks. Then the time of airborne suspension of SARS CoV-2 in bio-aerosols is found to be prolonged, so the guidance goes to renewed guidelines – everyone should wear a mask.

Simply said, the current research from the infectious disease community is clear—while transmission risk by fomites appears to be very low, it is still possible. I’m doubtful that any reputable infectious disease entity will be declaring that virus transmission by fomites is zero-risk. A better framework is to assess whether the risk is high or low, not yes or no.

We’re finding that the mainstream media is generally doing a poor job of synthesizing through the insights coming out from the infectious disease research community – or grabbing parts of the research to fit into their narrative.

For what it’s worth, my background includes graduate and post-grad work in biosecurity and infectious disease (microbial forensics). I’m telling my civilian family, friends, clients, and colleagues that beyond direct contact transmission of SARS CoV-2, there continues to be indirect transmission risk via fomites—so staunchly follow hand-washing protocols. Healthcare workers handling the confirmed positives have an entirely more rigorous set of protocols.

Robert Carotenuto, Director of Security, The Shed

Robert Carotenuto, Director of Security, The Shed

In my opinion, we need to focus on the practical and the tired and true. I like to think that an easy approach would be common-sense hygiene. Washing your hands routinely is good hygiene. Washing your hands after touching lots of doorknobs and handles, before eating, after using the toilet, after touching surfaces that many others have touched, will help us all reduce the risk of contracting many bacterial and viral infections, not just Covid-19.

Of course, there is also the idea of relative risk. Contracting Covid-19 while working as a nurse without PPE in a hospital ICU filled with Covid-19 patients will most likely cause you to contract Covid-19. Wearing PPE, your risk of infection would decrease. The more distance that you place between you and a possible vector of infection, the less risk you will have of infection.

I would also like to address crisis communication. The very first information we receive in any crisis information will have errors. I would argue that even after nearly 5-months of Covid-19 research, the information being delivered is imprecise because expert knowledge of the Covid-19 is imprecise.

Indeed, without a large set of data to review, compare, and vet by various sources, errors in interpretation, and thus errors in communication, will occur. Communication that seemingly contradicts previous communications without in-depth qualifications makes us mistrust the source. This lack of trust may make the public question the validity of correct information.

What should we do as security professionals when confronted with seemingly conflicting information? One, think practically, as I stated above. Tried and true methods are tried and true because they have been effective through experience (live life tests over a long period of time).

Also, we need to communicate with our staff and stakeholders about the incipient and changing nature of a new threat that we are still learning about. There is no need to change a recent policy, guideline, or procedure unless it is making your organization and its staff less safe (or because a recent law has changed and so you need to comply).

How SimpleSense Is Helping

For businesses looking to reopen safely, SimpleSense is compiling the most up-to-date information and building tools to aggregate the latest COVID-19 data available. Our goal with these resources is to save security teams time, so they can focus on keeping employees safe instead of sifting through volumes of information. Please visit and utilize our resources below:

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