03/26/20 Laundry Safety

As students try to stay safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some might worry if it’s safe to do laundry in communal facilities.

Wash your hands. Social distance. Clean things infected people might sneeze or cough on.

Students have heard advice from all corners of the Internet on how to keep themselves safe from the novel coronavirus. Even if they follow all guidelines to stay healthy, what happens when their roommates don’t take all of the same precautions?

There are a couple of options for students in that predicament, Pamela Aaltonen, professor emerita of nursing and immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, said in an email.

You should work to convince them of the seriousness of the situation, she said. Secure social distancing space by moving to a different space. Alternately, work to establish social distancing in an apartment by decreasing contact with use of a schedule if you share a kitchen and/or bathroom, she suggested. Use the space at different times and disinfect surfaces.

Aaltonen said in a phone call that because the virus is new and research is still being done, there aren’t clear answers yet on whether the virus is airborne or how its particles transfer from surfaces to people.

Direct exposure to someone who is infected — being within that 6- to 10-foot range or touching something a person has sneezed or coughed on — is more worrisome than indirect exposure. Sitting on the same couch as someone who hasn’t taken the same health precautions is more of a minimal risk, Aaltonen said, as compared to actually being physically close to that person.

“I would be much more focused on … face-to-face contact,” she said.

Should students be worried about communal objects like refrigerators, freezers and laundry machines, then?

Aaltonen said that answer is still unclear. But worried students can choose not to touch shared objects for three days, she noted.

Nursing professor Libby Richards said in an email that activities like washing clothes in hot water could help sanitize them, and students can take further steps to keep themselves safe when using shared machines.

“I would encourage all surfaces to be wiped down before touch, if able, especially high-touch surfaces such as machine buttons,” Richards said.

If people don’t take the pandemic seriously, Aaltonen wrote, the virus could spread rapidly.

“You don’t want to get COVID-19 nor do you want to be responsible for unnecessarily exposing others to the infection,” she said. “It may also help to pay attention to what is going on elsewhere and how the number of cases is increasing dramatically. If every positive case infects two other persons, it does not take too long to go from a handful of cases to many cases IF we don’t take social distancing seriously.

“We are trying to flatten the curve in terms of numbers of cases to allow for a more steady stream of demand for hospital beds rather than a gush of a demand that we are unable to as effectively respond to.”

Activities like walking outside aren’t as problematic, Aaltonen said. Wide-open spaces are safer because the virus is dispersed over a wider area instead of concentrated in a single dwelling. One reason viruses tend to excel in the winter, she noted, is due both to lower humidity and the fact that people stay indoors more often.

The drier air keeps people’s noses from being able to filter possible contagions out of their system, Aaltonen said. Staying indoors longer keeps people sharing the same communal spaces, heightening the possibility for virus spread.

Though researchers don’t know how long the virus lingers in the air, Aaltonen is optimistic: “I think we’ll know this relatively soon.”

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