SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Studies indicate that we're not likely to get coronavirus from a surface, but have you ever wondered, "Is there COVID on that?"
CBS13 investigative reporter Julie Watts swabbed high-touch surfaces to find out where COVID-19 might be lingering and how surface tests might be useful.
From gas pumps, grocery carts and self-checkout screens to public restroom locks and coffee shop and gym doors, CBS13 swabbed 16 high-touch surfaces to test for COVID. We used surface test kits provided by Enviral Tech, which is one of a growing number of coronavirus surface testing companies.
Studies indicate that the virus is spread primarily through droplets in the air and there is little to no evidence of transmission though contaminated surfaces. Though, handwashing and sanitizer is still highly recommended.
CBS13 swabbed simply for the curiosity factor, but if you're not likely to catch COVID-19 from a surface, how are the surface tests useful?
"It is less expensive to test the environment," said Enviral Tech CEO Dr. Shula Jaron
Jaron explained that they primarily work with long-term care and senior living facilities where it can be costly to test every resident regularly. "Rather than testing 100 individuals that come into your facility, you're testing just a couple of locations."
She says a positive surface test can indicate the need for immediate human testing, and repeated positives in one spot can indicate the need for better cleaning.
"Which really is an indicator that they're probably not taking a lot of precautions with infection control," Jaron said.
University of California, San Francisco infectious disease specialist Dr. Phillip Norris says the nasal PCR tests are really the gold standard.
"I would say the ideal would be to get cheap rapid tests," Norris said.
Though he says, until reliable rapid human tests are widely available, environmental monitoring with these surface PCR tests "could make sense at this point of time."
Still, he says there's not enough data to understand how effective surface tests are for the early detection of outbreaks in a facility.
As for our tests, he notes that all COVID PCR tests pick up both live and dead viruses. So a positive surface test doesn't necessarily mean it's infectious. "The test only detects the genetic code of the virus," Dr. Norris explained.
In all, CBS13 swabbed 16 high touch surfaces. A gas station pump and some bathroom stall locks that we swabbed came back with borderline positive results. According to Dr. Jaron, that means some of the degraded virus RNA remained, likely after the surface had been cleaned.
However, the tests found high levels of COVID-19 on two of the surfaces we swabbed — the entry door handle to a local gym, and a self-checkout station at a local hardware store where, incidentally, we saw people shopping without masks.
"The risk of getting infected is much greater from the person next to you not wearing a mask than it is from touching the touch screen," Norris said.
Though, considering that the hardware store self-checkout tested positive while another store's self-checkout did not, he says the hardware store should reexamine its cleaning protocols.
We shared our results with the businesses that tested positive. Each told us they have increased cleaning and are disinfecting high-traffic and high-touch areas.
NOTE: This story has been updated with additional details.
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