Your colleague steps into the office with a light cough, some gazed-over eyes. With a sniffle she greets you and asks how those weekend plans went. But its hard for you to focus on what she is saying because you know she’s sick, and that means everyone in the office will be sneezing soon. But without direct contact, how does a virus so quickly infiltrate a whole building?
It only takes a few sickened surfaces.
Speaking at an infectious disease meeting of the American Society for Microbiology this week, Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona presented a (yet to be published) study showing that microbes can make their way onto 40-60 percent of office surfaces and personnel within 2-4 hours, according to a press release. The speed of the desk-demic is thanks to workers touching shared surfaces (which we do constantly without thinking) like table tops and door handles.
To test the transmission, the researchers used a stand-in for the stomach-turning norovirus — a bacteriophage — that had a similar size, shape, and resistance to antibiotics. They placed the bacteriophages on one to two surfaces in various office buildings, a conference room, and a health care facility. Every two to eight hours, the researchers sampled up to 100 different surfaces like keyboards, light switches, and office phones in those areas.
“Within 2 to 4 hours between 40 to 60% of the fomites (surfaces capable of transmitting an infection) sampled were contaminated with virus,” said Gerba in the press release.
Before everyone has their morning coffee, just the normal activity of a few people interacting with one infected surface can transmit a pathogen around to half the building. It’s not just your imagination — stay away from that sniffling guy in accounting and don’t borrow his stapler.
Thankfully, the researchers also tested a way to deal with a spreading office plague. If the cleaning personnel for the buildings and the employees were instructed on proper use of disinfecting wipes (using them to clean surfaces at least once a day) and frequent hand washing, the number of infected surfaces was reduced by 80 percent and the concentration of the virus stand-in was reduced by 99 percent.
Even though we’ve all had that intuitive feeling that a sick office mate is probably going to get us sick, many of us seem to feel as though a separating cubicle is enough to protect us. But research like Gerba’s says otherwise. We tend not to pay attention to all the surfaces we touch throughout the day, and we are simply terrible judges of how/if/when we are sick and shedding viruses. Combine these psychological quirks with a lack of consistent hygiene and you get cold virus that takes out a whole office floor.
I’m going to go wash my hands. Oh, and stick to the fist-bump.
IMAGE: So this happens whenever somebody in the office gets sick… by Redditor Lennius