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Viruses spread 'like crazy' in an office, study finds

Viruses spread like wildfire in an average office, getting from people’s hands onto the communal coffeepot within hours and spreading from doors to desks almost instantly, an expert reported Monday.

It only takes two to four hours for a virus to get off, say, a coffee pot handle and onto a desk.

“The hand was really quicker than the sneeze in the spread of disease,” Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona in Tucson told a meeting of infectious disease experts. The office hot spot was the break room, where everyone touches the coffeepot and microwave, his team found.

A sampling sponge was used to help determine how fast germs spread in an office.Today

But using disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers almost completely cut that spread, Gerba said.

The study, presented at an American Society for Microbiology meeting in Washington, D.C. shows just how viruses that cause colds, flu and other infections spread. The answer: People deposit the germs on tables, desks and coffee pots and then when others touch those objects, they pick them up.

“Every time you are touching these surfaces, you are picking up 30 to 50 percent of the organisms that are on those surfaces,” Gerba said. Then you touch your face, and the viruses can either get into the eyes nose or mouth, or get back onto your fingers. “The average adult touches their face on average once every three or four minutes,” Gerba said. For kids, it’s more on the order of every one minute.

“Every time you do that … you have the probability of transmitting disease,” Ger—ba said.

To make sure he was measuring new spread, Gerba and his team used a virus not usually seen in offices called MS-2. It doesn’t infect people, either, so there was no danger to his volunteer guinea pigs. “It’s been used as a model for like noroviruses,” Gerba said — it’s about the same shape and size and is similarly resistant to disinfectants.

Noroviruses are commonly spread hand to mouth. Each year, they make about 20 million people sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and kill up to 800 people.

Gerba’s team spread MS-2 on desktops, door push plates and the coffee pot handle, among other places, in two Arizona offices, one with 20 people and one with 80 people. They also swabbed people’s hands to see what germs they already had, and while doing that, they secretly deposited MS-2 on the hand of one unsuspecting person.

“It spread like crazy,” Gerba said. It didn’t really matter where they put the virus — it spread within hours from a surface like a table top or someone’s hand.

Germ experts knew this, but no one had done such a controlled study to see precisely how quickly it spread. Studies also show that frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizers and disinfectants can cut germ spread and illnesses, but Gerba said even he was surprised at how well they worked.

Dr. Charles Gerba and a student work on samples for their study of office germs.Today

Half the office workers agreed to use hand sanitizer or wipes formulated using chemicals called quaternary ammonium compounds. “We released the viruses again (and) we found a dramatic decrease,” Gerba said. The viruses spread to 60 percent fewer surfaces and there was a 90 percent drop in the amount of virus on hands or surfaces. “What surprised us was only half the people agreed to use hand sanitizers or disinfectants, yet we had a dramatic decrease,” Gerba said.

“We suggested that any time they have been out in public, that they use a hand sanitizer and that they use a disinfectant wipe on their desk once a day,” Gerba said.

The findings could also apply to schools. Several states are reporting unusually high numbers of serious infections with a respiratory virus called enterovirus D-68 or EV-D68. Gerba says it’s probably spreading because school is just starting and newly susceptible children are being exposed to it.

“We found we could reduce absenteeism by 50 percent if kids would just disinfect their desks once a day,” Gerba said.

It’s one thing to have a virus on your desk; it’s another to get sick from it. Gerba says a lot depends on if people have been infected by a certain virus before and have immunity. But the germs are definitely there.

“If you look office buildings in fall in the cold season, about a third of the surfaces you touch have a cold virus on them,” Gerba said. “A lot of people come to the office with a cold or the flu and then contaminate them.”