Cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning in Frank Mosco's household during the COVID-19 pandemic. There's a protocol for everything he and his two teenage daughters do.
Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic.
"We wipe down every package that comes into the house and the items inside," says Mosco, a technologist and social justice activist in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. "If it's a fruit or vegetable, I use vinegar and water, or water and soap. Then we throw out the boxes, clean up the table, and wash our hands." Only then do they put items away.
As the novel coronavirus continues to pose an invisible threat, parents of infants to adolescents are pondering how vigorously and frequently to clean and disinfect surfaces at home and apply hand sanitizer in public. They also fret over whether there can be too much of a good thing: Will making everything as seemingly germ-free as possible reduce immunity down the road?
Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic. Every family should assess their particular risks. Factors to consider include pre-existing medical conditions, the number of people living in the same home, and whether anyone works in a hospital or other virus-prone environment, says Kari Debbink, assistant professor of biology at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland.
Constantly cleaning everything in sight isn't necessary, she explains, because coronavirus tends to spread mainly via immediate contact with respiratory droplets—catching it from surfaces is a less-likely scenario. The longer the virus stays on a surface, the less contagious it becomes.
Some parents worry that their children's growing bodies may become accustomed to an environment that is "too clean." Debbink, a virologist, offers a salient reminder: "The immune system comes into contact with many, many different antigens every day, and it is 'trained' from birth onwards to respond to pathogens. Doing a little more cleansing and disinfecting during the pandemic will not weaken the immune system."
Other experts agree. "There should be no negative outcome to properly washing your hands more frequently," says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. "Even with enhanced disinfection, kids are still getting exposed to immune-boosting microbes from playing outside, having pets, etc."
"There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age."
Applying hand sanitizer consisting of at least 60 percent alcohol helps clean hands while outdoors, says Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age," she adds, and recommends moisturizer so hands don't dry out from frequent use. Meanwhile, "cleaning and disinfecting at home also don't have an impact on antiviral immunity, in kids or adults."
With the coronavirus foremost in parents' minds, Patricia Garcia, a pediatric hospitalist, has fielded many questions about how thoroughly they should wipe, rub, scrub, or mop. As medical director of Connecticut Children's Healthy Homes Program in Hartford, which takes aim at toxins and other housing hazards, she reassures them with this mantra: "You're never going to get it perfectly sterilized, and that's okay."
To quell some of these concerns, in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of products for household use. None of these products have been specifically tested against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the agency expects these products to be effective because they have demonstrated efficacy against a different human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2 or an even harder-to-kill virus.
Many products on the list contain isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. "When using an EPA-registered disinfectant," the agency's website instructs, "follow the label directions for safe, effective use. Make sure to follow the contact time, which is the amount of time the surface should be visibly wet."
Bear in mind that not all cleaners actually disinfect, cautions Alan Woolf, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who directs its environmental health center and is a professor at Harvard Medical School. Some cleaners remove visible dirt, grease, and grime, but they don't kill viruses. Disinfectants by their nature inactivate both bacteria and viruses. "That's an important distinction," Woolf says.
Frequently touched surfaces—for instance, doorknobs, light switches, toilet-flushing levers, and countertops—should not only be cleaned, but also disinfected at least daily during a pandemic if someone in the household is sick. The objects one touches upon coming home are the ones most likely to become contaminated with viruses, experts say.
Before bringing items inside, "it might be good to clear off a counter space where they will be placed," says Debbink, the biology professor and virologist. "This way, they come into contact with as few items and surfaces as possible."
If space permits, another option would be to set aside nonperishable items. "I've heard of some families putting things in a 'mud room' and closing the door for 48 hours, some leaving things in their garage or car trunk," says Stephanie Holm, co-director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San Francisco. "Letting new purchases sit for 48 hours undisturbed would greatly reduce the number of viable viruses present."
Cleaning surfaces is recommended before disinfecting them. Holm suggests using unscented soap and microfiber cloths instead of paper towels, which can transmit bacteria and viruses from one area to another.
Soap has the power to eradicate viruses with at least 20 seconds of contact time. It attacks the coronavirus's protective coat, explains infectious diseases specialist Schultz-Cherry. "If you destroy the coat, the virus is no longer infectious. Influenza virus is also very sensitive to soap."
"The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."
For cribs, toys, and other mouth-contact surfaces, sanitizing with soap and water, not disinfectants, is advisable, says pediatrician Woolf. Fresh fruits and vegetables also can be cleaned with soap, removing dirt and pesticide residue, he adds.
"Some parents are nervous about using disinfectant on toys, which is understandable, considering many toys end up in children's mouths, so soap and water can be an alternative," says pediatrician Garcia, who recommends using hot water.
While some toys can go in the washing machine and dryer or dishwasher, others need to be cleaned by hand, with dish soap or a delicate detergent, as indicated on their labels. But toys with electrical components cannot be submerged in water, in which case consulting the EPA's list of disinfectants may be a parent's best option, she says.
Labels on the back of cleaning and disinfecting products also contain specific instructions. Not allowing a liquid to sit on a surface for the recommended time results in exposure to chemicals without even accomplishing the intended purpose of disinfection. For most household bleach-containing agents, the advisable "dwell time" is 10 minutes. "Many people don't realize this," says Holm, the environmental health specialist who also trained as a physician.
Beware of combining any type of cleaners or disinfectants that aren't already premixed. Doing so can release harmful gases into the air, she cautions.
During the pandemic, Mosco and his daughters have been very conscientious about decontaminating whatever comes through their doors. Mosco says he doesn't believe the family is overusing cleaning and disinfecting products. Although he's fastidious, he says, "a completely sterile environment is not the goal."
His mother, who was a nurse, instilled in him that exposure to some bacteria is a good thing. In turn, he "always encouraged his kids to play with animals, and to have fun in sand and dirt, with plenty of sunlight to keep their immune systems strong."
Even though a vaccine for coronavirus currently doesn't exist, parents can take some comfort in the best weapon available today to protect kids from deadly pathogens: "The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems," says virologist Rasmussen, "is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."