Handwashing to Slow the Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 12, 2020, 12:00 PM

Among several steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus is one we can act on several times a day: frequently and thoroughly washing our hands. But how frequent and how thorough? And what about those whose living conditions make handwashing anything but easy?

Young boy washes his hands at the bathroom sink.

The simple act of handwashing has always been an important factor in preventing the spread of disease. As the coronavirus gains traction, it’s all the more critical. But a quick splash of water and perfunctory spritz of soap is nowhere near sufficient to keep the virus at bay, if you’ve been exposed. Now is the time to be sure we’re washing often enough and doing it right.

With that in mind, we want to share some resources. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers very specific guidance as to how often. Experts there say we should wash our hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Moreover, technique matters and we all need to take the time to do it right. The CDC recommends 20 seconds of solid scrubbing. To help make sure we spend the time we should, CDC offers a little life hack: singing “Happy Birthday to You” twice while we scrub. If you find that the musical selection doesn’t suit your ear, the Los Angeles Times offers up a number of worthy alternatives for accompaniment. And if soap and water are not readily available, the CDC recommends rubbing your hands together for twenty seconds with hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and fully covers your hands. Hand sanitzers will not work however if your hands are dirty or greasy (such as after gardening or playing outside).

This video from Johns Hopkins Hospital breaks handwashing down step-by-step.

Unfortunately, many of us may have developed bad habits that we’ll need to overcome. In 2012, long before COVID-19 was on the horizon, RWJF published a blog post noting that surveys had concluded that the great majority of us have observed people failing to wash their hands at all after using a public restroom, much less for the 20 seconds recommended by the CDC.

From his days as ABC News' Chief Health and Medical Editor, Rich Besser puts hand santizers and soaps to the test.

There are health equity considerations too. Not everybody has ready access to soap and water. A recent story in the LA Daily News describes the initial steps Los Angeles County is taking to make sure homeless people have access to soap and clean water, as well as sanitary restrooms and health care. Tacoma, Washington, undertook a similar effort a few years ago, well before COVID-19, with important benefits for health and local pollution, as well as the comfort and dignity of the homeless.

And U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is among those calling on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect people in its custody, who are especially at risk for community spread due to crowded living conditions, poor sanitation, and the constant churn as inmates come and go.

Read an op-ed in the Washington Post by RWJF President and CEO Richard Besser on how past public policy failures are affecting our country’s ability to cope with Coronavirus.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is closely monitoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) guidance on the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). For more information, please refer to the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH) resources that are regularly updated.