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Doctors say people are washing hands wrong and not enough

Officials from the Salt Lake County Health Department give a demonstration about what happens if we don’t wash properly. Photo/Video: Paul Nelson, KSL

SALT LAKE CITY — As governments and hospitals figure out how they’ll react to a possible Coronavirus pandemic, health officials are trying to remind people there is a simple way to stop the spread of germs that many people just aren’t doing: washing our hands, and washing our hands correctly.

Health officials say even people who are washing their hands regularly are probably doing it wrong. This may seem overly dramatic, but, health officials say it’s completely true.  There are people who have died because someone else didn’t wash their hands.

Salt Lake County Health Department Epidemiologist Michelle Vowles says, “[Health officials] said that with SARS and MERS, if people had followed those general hygiene things like washing your hands, covering your mouth when you sneeze and cough, it wouldn’t have spread as much as it did.”

Vowles says the Coronavirus may be getting all the media attention at the moment, but, it’s not the biggest health risk in Utah.

“We have the flu every year and every year, unfortunately, numerous people become sick and people will die from the flu,” she says.

What if we use hand sanitizer instead of soap?  Salt Lake County Environmental Health Scientist Andrea Gamble says it definitely better than nothing, but, it’s not as effective as washing.  In fact, The New York Times recently reported the F.D.A warned the makers of Purell to stop claiming it could prevent people from catching the flu, MRSA and the Ebola virus.

“If you read on the container, it kills 99.99% of all germs.  The .01% that it doesn’t kill is norovirus,” Gamble says.

We know norovirus better as the stomach flu.  Gamble says people can shed those viruses for two weeks after their stomach flu symptoms go away, and it only takes ten virus particles to make someone else sick.

Gamble says, “Imagine a piece of toilet paper.  That’s all that’s standing between you and a trillion virus particles.”

Plus, a lot of us may be lying to ourselves about how well we wash our hands.  We asked travelers at Salt Lake International is they wash their hands every time they use the restroom, and almost all of them said, yes.  Gamble says a recent study shows most people report washing up after using the restroom.

“[It states] 95% of the population said they washed their hands after using the toilet, but, when researchers went in to airport bathrooms and watched them come out of the stalls, only 78% of those people were actually washing their hands,” she says.

Vowles says the proper way to wash up is to do it for roughly 30 seconds, scrubbing everything… the backs of your hands, your wrists and under your fingernails.  Plus, we should do it more often.

“Any time you’re going to put something in your mouth, before you eat, after you go to the bathroom, before you prepare your food or before you touch your face all are good times to wash your face or, at the very least, use hand sanitizer,” Vowles says.