As more and more businesses reopen in parts of Southern California, customers could come in contact with the virus that causes COVID-19 by touching common surfaces such as bathroom door handles, elevator buttons, and chairs in food courts of shopping malls, according to an NBC4 I-Team investigation.
"It's kind of inevitable when we're out in our daily life, that we're going to touch a lot of surfaces that others have touched," said Dr. Annabelle De St. Maurice, an infectious disease expert at UCLA Medical Center who looked at the results of the I-Team's investigation.
This month, the I-Team swabbed 25 surfaces in Orange County, which has led the way in reopening malls, indoor dining at restaurants, and movie theaters.
The I-Team used a COVID-19 test kit made by Phylagen. The company says the test doesn't specify whether or not the virus was live and infectious at the time of swabbing, only whether the RNA from the SARS CoV-2 virus—which causes COVID—is "present" or "not present." But Phylagen says if you get a "positive" hit that means someone with the virus might have been exhaling or coughing infectious droplets.
"Eventually [those droplets are] going to land on a surface. And then you can test that surface to see whether or not you had active shedders in that space," said Phylagen CEO Dr. Jessica Green.
The I-Team found evidence of the virus on a bathroom door handle at a Smart and Final store in Santa Ana and on a bathroom door at a CVS Pharmacy on Main Street in Santa Ana.
We also swabbed bathroom door handles at three different restaurants that reopened for indoor dining.
At only one, the busy Olive Garden in Santa Ana, the I-Team found the virus on a bathroom door handle and on the entrance to a stall in the men's bathroom.
At the MainPlace Mall, three surfaces we swabbed came up negative, but three others were positive for the presence of the virus: buttons in an elevator near the food court, a chair at a dining table in the food court, and on an escalator handrail that had a sign saying "Handrails Sterilized With UV-C Light Technology."
Dr. De St. Maurice of UCLA explained how a person could possibly get infected by touching one of these surfaces.
"Someone could get infected if that virus were infectious and they touched their eyes, their nose, or their mouth," De St. Maurice told NBC4.
Of the 25 surfaces swabbed by the I-Team in Orange County, eight of them—almost 1/3 of the samples, showed the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19. That's a higher percentage compared to last August when the I-Team swabbed 75 surfaces in Los Angeles County. At that time, almost 15% of the samples were positive for the virus.
"I think the results [from Orange County] demonstrate that SARS CoV-2 can be found on a lot of different surfaces," said De St. Maurice.
In statements to the I-Team, the businesses where we found the virus said they disinfect high-touch surfaces frequently and follow CDC guidelines. They also pointed out the CDC says "touching surfaces isn't thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
MainPlace Mall told NBC4 it's made numerous investments that go "well beyond the steps recommended by CDC guidelines," and it's had numerous inspections by state and local health authorities "showing compliance with all guidelines."
But with the presence of the virus found on commonly touched surfaces, infectious disease specialist Dr. De St. Maurice says the public should remain vigilant about taking safety precautions when out in public: wear a mask, keep six feet distance from others, use hand sanitizer, and wash hands frequently.
And she says one more bit of advice, "Anybody who has any symptoms of COVID-19, like cough, runny nose, or fever, should be staying home" and not going into public places.
Read the full company statements below:
Online Statement: Response to COVID-19 RNA Testing at MainPlace Mall
MainPlace Mall takes the health and safety of everyone who visits the mall very seriously. Guided by medical principles and the advice of scientific experts, we have made a material investment in the safety of our guests, employees and tenants that goes well beyond the steps recommended by CDC guidelines – including the use of long-lasting anti-microbial surface treatments and the installation of new cutting-edge technologies like UV sterilization equipment that kills 99% of all bacteria and viruses on escalator handrails. We have had numerous inspections throughout this pandemic by both state and local health authorities, and we are in compliance with all guidelines something which confirms that we can be confident in the results of our investment.
NBC-4 has not shared its RNA tests results with us. While the station claims “positive” results in the mall, experts agree that the mere presence of genetic RNA material on an inanimate surface does not necessarily mean the virus particles found are either live or infectious. Therefore, while we understand NBC-4 is attempting to provide investigative journalism for the public good, we believe the validity of their study is misleading to the public and must be questioned.
It is also important that the public be given the opportunity to understand the many steps MainPlace Mall has taken to protect the health and safety of everyone who visits the center – steps that demonstrate our leadership with regard to controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus in public places.
Cleaning: Not only has MainPlace Mall increased the rigor and regularity of its own cleaning protocols, but we also employ a third-party professional cleaning organization that is well versed in curbing the spread of viral outbreaks in malls and other public places to clean and disinfect all common areas of the shopping center.
UV Sterilization Equipment: We have added UV sterilization equipment to escalator handrails to kill 99% of all bacteria and viruses with every rotation.
Anti-Microbial Surface Treatments: Anti-microbial surface treatments are helping to kill germs in high-traffic areas throughout the center; these treatments are long-lasting and work continuously.
Upgraded, Computerized HVAC System: Our HVAC system now automatically adjusts air quality and temperature, uses MERV8 filters to remove hazardous airborne particles, and varies its outside air circulation to bring fresh air into the center as temperature and humidity conditions outdoors allow Commercial-Grade Electrostatic Disinfectant Sprayers: With the addition of these sprayers, we are able to distribute a portfolio of Clorox disinfectants and sanitizers effective against a wide array of both bacteria and viruses.
Automatic Touchless Hand Sanitizers: We have installed 32 automatic touchless hand sanitizers throughout the property, including at the landing of each escalator and elevator and near all mall entrances/exits, as well as 30 additional hand sanitizers for mall employees to use behind the scenes.
Restroom Upgrades: We have installed touchless, automatic door openers in restrooms, physical partitions at restroom sinks and urinals, replaced hand dryers with paper towel dispensers and added automatic faucets at restroom sinks.
Food Court Enhancements: MainPlace Mall is serving customers only in to-go, single-use, disposable containers, all tables inside are covered with single-use paper tablecloths between each use to serve as a protective barrier, and we have added additional patio seating in The Courtyard which is just outside the main mall entrance near the food court.
Touchless Water Refills: Uniquely, MainPlace Mall has retrofitted traditional drinking fountains with automatic, touchless bottle fillers.
Directional Separations and Signage: Directional separations and signage at mall entrances encourage social distancing as people enter and exit the mall.
MainPlace Mall Ambassadors: For a personal touch, during high-traffic times such as the holidays, we will be offering guests their own wellness amenities such as face masks and personal hand sanitizers.
Shop Now!: MainPlace Mall will soon launch a new e-commerce platform called “Shop Now!” that will enable its customers to search all products and in-store inventories from select stores using the mall’s existing website. Shoppers can then decide if they prefer to use the tool to purchase online, request curbside delivery, or simply pre-plan their in-person visit.
Retail To Go: Our popular Retail To Go program, which offers curbside delivery of goods and restaurant orders, has been in place throughout the pandemic and will continue indefinitely as a customer service.
With more than 56,000 cases of COVID-19 in Orange County alone, it is unrealistic to believe that any public place will be entirely devoid of even the smallest, most innocuous COVID-19 genetic material. Rest assured, there is nothing more important to us than the health and safety of those who visit our center, and if there is anything that can be done to curb the spread of this virus in an area frequented by the public, MainPlace Mall has done just that.
Ross Dress for Less:
We take the health and safety of our Customers and Associates very seriously. During the pandemic, Ross has taken steps to keep our communities safe in accordance with CDC and local guidelines which include providing disinfectant wipes for Customers to sanitize carts. It’s important to note that according to the CDC and medical researchers, touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way COVID-19 spreads. Nevertheless, we have significantly enhanced the cleaning and sanitizing of common surfaces in our stores. In addition, we conduct daily health checks for all Associates, require Associates and Customers to wear face masks, provide hand sanitizer for Associates and guests, limit the number of Customers in our stores based on local regulations, encourage social distancing, have plexiglass shields at all our registers, and provide contactless pay options. These health and safety measures reflect our commitment to provide a safe environment for all those that shop and work in our stores.
Smart & Final:
Smart & Final is committed to making sure our stores are a safe place to work and shop. There are too many variables with a single swab on a door handle taken at a moment in time to comment specifically on this particular test, but it’s important that our customers know about the extensive measures we have and are taking to protect their health. We have led the industry in introducing safety measures in our stores, including being one of the first retailers to require masks and including sanitizing high-touch surfaces like door handles every hour.
While according to the CDC and many studies, the virus does not often spread through surfaces, we take every COVID-19 risk seriously and remain ever diligent in our efforts to reduce the spread. This situation underscores the need for everyone to take safety precautions seriously, and to ensure we all do our part to prevent the spread of the virus, which includes frequent hand-washing, hand sanitizer, face coverings and social distancing.
Our cleaning policies and protocols follow CDC guidelines and we require all stores to follow them. While the risk of surface transmission of COVID-19 has been found to be low, we have hourly protocols for cleaning hard surfaces and more frequent cleaning of commonly handled items. We are following up with this store, as well as reinforcing compliance with these protocols in our stores.
Other steps we have taken to help ensure the safety of our customers and employees include:
· The requirement for employees and customers to wear a mask or cloth face covering while in our stores
· Protective panels installed at our pharmacy counters and front-store checkout stations
· Disinfecting wipe stations placed at the front of each store for our customers to use
· Measures to help ensure proper social distancing, including floor markers to help our customers be mindful of how close they are to others
The health and safety of our guests and team members is our top priority. We continue to take a number of steps, which follow CDC guidelines, to create a safe, welcoming environment in our restaurants. These include configuring our dining rooms for social distancing, daily team member health monitoring, all team members wearing masks, frequent handwashing, and enhanced cleaning procedures using CDC-approved disinfectant.
We have a specialized Total Quality team responsible for overseeing our robust food safety and restaurant cleanliness practices. This team includes experts such as Environmental Health Specialists and Registered Sanitarians and they work closely with local health departments to ensure that we have the right processes in place to protect our guests and our team members.