How health care facilities are staying clean during the COVID-19 pandemic

From chemical disinfects, to automated room systems using hydrogen peroxide vapor and ultraviolet light, researchers dig deeper into what works best
January 22, 2021

Public health experts and medical facilities around the world have faced tremendous challenges over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As vaccines begin to roll out, efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 such as masking, physical distancing and disinfecting surfaces remain important. The disinfection strategies health care facilities have relied on during the pandemic are also crucial for reducing hospital-acquired infections, meaning that further study of disinfection techniques is important.

In a new article published in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters, a team of researchers investigated the many disinfection strategies at work in hospitals and other care facilities around the world. Virender Sharma, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, joined colleagues from the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System in Temple, Texas, as well as research institutions in France and China. The team reviewed disinfection methods used during the COVID-19 pandemic, how those methods work and how effective they are at stopping the spread of infection.

Disinfection approaches that have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic include chemical disinfectants, automated disinfection processes, specialized surface coatings and materials with antimicrobial properties. Each of these approaches has proven effective at killing coronavirus on different surfaces. However, each works in different ways and are best used in different manners. For example, chemical disinfectants should not be used on some surfaces. Additionally, some methods require more work to use than others.

Chemical disinfectants such as bleach, alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are time-honored ways of stopping diseases from spreading on surfaces. These chemicals work in a variety of ways such as destroying proteins and fatty compounds that bacteria and viruses are made of. Coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19 have a fatty coating that they cannot survive without. Because of this, alcohol and bleach have been highly effective at eliminating the virus on various surfaces. Other disinfectants work through chemical reactions that produce substances that oxidize and otherwise damage microbes. However, chemical disinfectants must be reapplied regularly, meaning microbes can regrow between applications.

To address this issue, newer methods disinfect surfaces without needing human intervention. Some of these systems use hydrogen peroxide vapor or ultraviolet (UV) light to kill bacteria and viruses. One frequency range of UV light known as UV-C has proven effective at inactivating the virus that causes COVID-19. Systems based on UV-C can be used to disinfect items like phones that should not be exposed to chemical disinfectants. Disinfection methods that use both hydrogen peroxide and UV light can be especially effective.

Certain surfaces are also able to combat the spread of disease on their own. Research has shown that copper and copper-based alloys like brass are highly effective at stopping coronaviruses. Additionally, coatings made of plastic mixed with a copper-based compound or carbon nanoparticles containing platinum, nickel or other metals can also kill viruses. Surfaces and coatings like these are well suited for frequently touched objects like pens or door handles. Materials like these can be used on their own or combined with automated disinfection methods to increase their effectiveness.

The efforts hospitals and other facilities have made to stop the spread of COVID-19 have been effective; however, more work remains ahead. Future development of automated disinfection systems and the use of UV light and new antimicrobial materials hold promise for stopping the spread of COVID-19 and may help reduce the risks of hospital-acquired infections in the near future.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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