Testing door handles for COVID-19: How concerned should we be?

How often do we encounter the coronavirus in our daily lives? New surface tests are emerging as a screening tool and offer some insight.

Contact 6’s Jenna Sachs collected samples from door handles around Milwaukee and brought them to a local lab for testing. Some samples tested positive for the coronavirus.

The emergence of COVID-19 has set the course for an extraordinary year of scientific research and discovery.

"You can truly see what we are capable scientifically," said Thomas Hirsch of Accelerated Clinical Labs. Hirsch is talking not only about vaccines but of new environmental tests.

Thomas Hirsch

"At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was worried about the surface transmission. Carrying it from this to that," said Hirsch.

Contact 6 tried out a new surface test from Invisible Sentinel, provided by Accelerated Clinical Labs. The Invisible Sentinel test is approved by the Association of Agricultural Chemists. FOX6 Reporter Jenna Sachs collected samples from businesses, municipal buildings, gas stations, a gym, a laundromat and libraries across the Milwaukee area. She brought 14 vials back to the lab for analysis.

"Three out of the 14 locations that were swabbed, we did find it," said Hirsch.

The lab detected the coronavirus on door handles at a laundromat and two city of Milwaukee buildings, including City Hall.

"The more contact that you have with people, the more likelihood that one of those people is going to shed some of the virus there," said Hirsch.

In response, the City of Milwaukee tells Contact 6 it has a full-time cleaning specialist who disinfects door handles and high-touch surfaces three times a day.

While the Contact 6 tests indicated the presence of the coronavirus, that does not mean its levels were high enough for spread. It’s an important distinction that’s contributed to a change in messaging about the spread of COVID-19 by surfaces since the spring.

"I think then we heard a lot of messaging about wash your groceries. Don't put them on the countertop," said Jeana Holt, an assistant nursing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Holt says that messaging all started with a study that found the coronavirus can live up to 24 hours on cardboard, 48 hours on stainless steel and 72 hours on plastic.

However, later research found the concentration of virus used in that study was way more than in real life. Under more realistic conditions, the life of the coronavirus on surfaces was much shorter.

"Some studies are saying one to two hours and some are saying there's not really any detectable virus that's staying on those surfaces," said Holt.

Jeana Holt

Holt says that isn’t an excuse to slack off in one area.

"The handwashing and hand sanitizing when we don't have access to water and soap," said Holt.

One of the door handles Contact 6 tested was at the West Allis Library. It tested negative. The library director says all touchpoints at the library are wiped down at least once an hour.

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Mike Koszalka

"We give them the assurance that it's a safe environment," said Mike Koszalka, library director.

Koszalka says the library has maintained the same strict sanitizing measures since it reopened in June.

Surface testing is meant to be a screening tool for offices, manufacturers and restaurants. It’s one way of monitoring whether the coronavirus has come into a workplace.

"It’s an extra screening step, in addition to screening people," said Hirsch.

Holt says there are only two reports of surface transmission of COVID-19. One by an elevator button in China, and the other, by medical equipment in a South African Hospital. The primary concern for spread of COVID-19 remains airborne transmission.

Response from Brian DeNeve on behalf of Milwaukee

Since the onset of the pandemic, the City has augmented its cleaning of common areas and high touch surfaces in areas serving both the public and our personnel. Our custodial staff uses cleaning solutions and practices in accordance with CDC guidance. Additionally, a cleaning specialist is assigned full-time to disinfecting door handles and high touch surfaces. These surfaces are cleaned three times a day during business hours. In the event of an employee’s confirmed positive test for COVID, their work area is thoroughly disinfected, in addition to other protocols such as communication and contact tracing.  

Studies referenced in this report:

1.  Big study early in pandemic regarding how long COVID lives on cardboard, stainless steel and plastic - 

van Doremalen, N., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., Tamin, A., Harcourt, J. L., Thornburg, N. J., Gerber, S. I., Lloyd-Smith, J. O., de Wit, E., & Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. The New England Journal of Medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2004973 

2.      Studies that mimic real-world situations and found COVID only lives 1-2 hours on countertops or was not detectable.

Goldman, E. (2020). Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites [Review of Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites]. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 20(8), 892–893. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30561-2 

3.      Study that found a person in China contracted COVID from an elevator button

Goldman, E. (2020). Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites [Review of Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites]. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 20(8), 892–893. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30561-2 

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