What to know about public restrooms, the novel coronavirus and ‘toilet plumes’

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The Washington Post has received dozens of questions from readers about ways to mitigate risks while using public restrooms during the pandemic, especially as states start to reopen and people begin to travel again. In the before times, public restrooms were already seen as tiled dens for germs. Now, we’re wearing masks, avoiding crowds and packing hand sanitizer wherever we go. The Post spoke with infectious-disease experts and epidemiologists about what you should consider when entering a public bathroom.

Here’s what you need to know:

— The virus is most likely to travel person to person via respiratory droplets.

— Put on a mask before entering any shared restroom.

— Avoid crowds, and try to make it a quick trip.

— Wash your hands with soap and water before leaving the restroom. Bring hand sanitizer as a backup plan.

Bathrooms first made a splash in June when scientists illustrated how a toilet flush can send a plume of aerosolized droplets up to three feet in the air — almost like a human sneeze, said Chuck Gerba, an environmental microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona.

Traces of viral RNA from the novel coronavirus have regularly been found in the feces and urine of covid-19 patients. But evidence of the virus’s genetic material doesn’t mean the virus is still infectious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it is “unclear whether the virus found in feces may be capable of causing covid-19.”

Scientists have successfully isolated the virus from urine in laboratory settings. But other research suggests that the coronavirus is far less likely to be transmittable person to person after traveling through the human body, and specifically the colon.

Emily Sickbert-Bennett, the director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center, told The Post that regardless of how the virus may be transmitted — either through aerosolization or via surface contamination — preventive measures remain the same: Wear a mask and practice good hand hygiene.

“Whether or not there’s infectious virus present in the environment, if your nose and mouth are covered with a mask, you are limiting your intake,” Sickbert-Bennett said over the phone.

Based on all available evidence, Sickbert-Bennett said coming in contact with other people — not bathrooms stalls — poses the “greatest risk.” The virus commonly spreads through respiratory droplets when people talk, yell, cough or even sing near each other. If it passed easily through human waste, Sickbert-Bennett told The Post that researchers would probably see far more evidence when conducting contact tracing during outbreaks. Instead, there are far more examples of the virus spreading through close contact and conversations.

When asked for their advice, every expert who spoke to The Post belabored the same point: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before leaving the bathroom. Soap — in both bar and liquid form — breaks down the…



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