Keep Scrubbing: Why It’s Still Important to Wash Your Hands as COVID-19 Cases Decline

Experts say handwashing reduces the spread of COVID-19 as well as the flu. Getty Images

In a new study, researchers say that handwashing by medical professionals has fallen to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels as cases decline.They add that…

Experts say handwashing reduces the spread of COVID-19 as well as the flu. Getty Images
  • In a new study, researchers say that handwashing by medical professionals has fallen to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels as cases decline.
  • They add that the general public's habits are probably similar.
  • Experts say that handwashing can reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as the flu and other infectious diseases.

When asked to step up our handwashing game at the start of this pandemic, most of us embraced the practice.

We were told to sing “Happy Birthday” (sometimes twice) while firmly scrubbing between fingers and up the wrist.

But now, as the number of vaccinated people continues to increase and restrictions are slowly lifted, researchers say that we seem to be forgetting about the handwashing.

Experts emphasize: We need to remember.

According to a study published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicinehandwashing compliance among medical professionals has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels: just 51 percent versus 90 percent in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Marrs, DNP, RN, a study author and the director of the Infection Control Program at the University of Chicago Medicine, told Healthline that the general public will typically follow the lead of the medical community. 

In other words: We're all probably slacking.

What the study revealed

The study authors were able to track handwashing by medical professionals over the summer and fall by using an automated hand hygiene monitoring system that the University of Chicago Medical Center put in place in 2015.

Before the pandemic, monthly hand hygiene compliance across all units of the hospital stood at an average baseline of 54 percent. 

During the pandemic, compliance reached a daily peak of nearly 93 percent on March 29, 2020 across all units and 100 percent on March 28, 2020 across units.

However, the researchers found that compliance declined across all units to a daily total of 51 percent on August 15, 2020. 

It has hovered near there ever since.

“This kind of mirrors the community in general,” said Marrs. “Many of us are still being vigilant, but there are definitely some of us out there who have (cut back on) handwashing.”

Marrs said that they were motivated to do the study to examine the process of long-term habit forming and to see whether the pandemic amplified our ability as humans to adopt a new or improved habit.

“Everyone says you can build a new habit in 21 days, but we’ve seen it takes much longer,” she said.

The importance of handwashing

How much handwashing actually helped during the pandemic is one important thing to consider.

According to experts, the practice was effective in more than just cutting the spread of COVID-19.

Marrs said that her hospital’s usual flu season patient count hovers at about 300 to 400 people per month.

This winter, they admitted only three patients with the flu.

“This isn’t just about preventing COVID,” she said. “It’s about preventing everything else, too.”

The initial spike in handwashing awareness and adoption thrilled those in the infectious disease field, said Erica Jones, BSN, RN, CIC, the director of Infection Prevention at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital and chapter president of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of The Association for Professionals in Infection Control.

“In my role, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of handwashing. I discuss it almost daily,” she told Healthline. 

Jones added that she believes the reduction in other illnesses seen over the past year can be tied to more frequent — and more efficient — handwashing across all of society.

“We should never underestimate the importance of handwashing,” she said. “Handwashing prevents illness and is our first line of defense against the spread of infection. Handwashing reduces the spread of respiratory viruses such as the flu and the common cold and illnesses that cause diarrhea.”

Proper handwashing

What do the experts want us to do?

Get back to washing — often and with vigor.

It may feel like a lot of work, but handwashing can save lives, according to Shanina C. Knighton, PhD, RN, CIC, an instructor and hygiene researcher at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“We have normalized flu deaths to be around 30,000 (per year) in prior years because it was just expected people would die,” Knighton told Healthline.

“Unfortunately, without the public starting to embrace and normalize infection prevention (which handwashing is a pillar of), we will (also) come to know that there will be a certain number of COVID-19 cases each year and that a certain amount of people will die,” she added.

Marrs hopes that the decline in regular flu and cold cases helps the public realize the impact of this simple task.

“If people really examine the past year, they probably had less sickness,” she said. “Handwashing is a big reason why. We just have to keep reminding them: Handwashing is the right thing to do.”