Viruses can zoom through workplaces in hours

But hand-sanitizing wipes reduce spread, experiment shows

WASHINGTON — A virus on an office door handle can spread to more than half the people working there within a few hours, say researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But when people use hand sanitizers and disinfect their work stations, transmission drops off sharply, they reported September 8 at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Microbiologist Charles Gerba and his colleagues planted an innocuous virus on a doorknob or tabletop in three settings — a health care facility, an office and a conference room, with the consent of the workers.  The virus showed up on 40 to 60 percent of employees within two to four hours and was found on surfaces in a coffee break room, bed rails in the health facility, phones and computers.

The scientists used a virus that infects bacteria, not people, and wasn’t previously present in these buildings. However, the virus sticks to hands and surfaces much like norovirus, a common human scourge.

When Gerba and his colleagues offered participants alcohol- or ammonia-based wipes to disinfect hands and surfaces, only about half used them. But that was enough to reduce virus presence by 80 percent, the researchers found.

Disinfection improves a person’s probability of staying well, Gerba says.  “In an office building, the odds need to be kept in your favor in cold and flu season.”

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