Hospital Finds That Hand-Washing Has Declined Nearly 50 Percent

Study Finds Not Even A Pandemic Improved Our Hand-Washing

Young man washing hands
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It only took four months after the start of the pandemic for staff in one hospital to skip singing “Happy Birthday” twice with ample soap and water

Among the many human habits that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare is the importance of proper hand hygiene, proving that not only is hand-washing an effective (and crucial!) way to help kill all kinds of illness-causing bacteria, but that many of us aren’t washing our hands correctly or even doing it enough.

According to a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine, proper hand-washing compliance dropped to pre-COVID levels at one Chicago hospital just four months after the pandemic officially began — a not-great statistic given that COVID is absolutely still a public health crisis, and that hand hygiene is pretty important health measure even when we’re not under the threat of a life-threatening virus.

Back in 2015, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) implemented an automated and anonymous hand hygiene monitoring system, allowing an infrared sensor to track soap dispenser uses among doctors, nurses, techs, and cleaning staff, along with entries into and exits from the hospital’s inpatient rooms, in an effort to estimate hand hygiene compliance for each inpatient unit.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, hand-washing compliance hovered around 54.5 percent, and on March 29, 2020 — weeks after COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic — hit a  daily peak of 92.8 percent. But just four months later, the rate dropped to 51.5 percent. Yes, you read that right: Hand-washing dropped to pre-COVID levels while still at the height of the pandemic.

“Our health care workers were really worried about COVID — they didn’t know who had COVID and who didn’t — so they were extremely careful with their hand hygiene,” one of the study’s coauthors, Emily Landon, executive medical director of infection prevention and control for University of Chicago Medicine, told CNN.

But it seems our newly-acquired consciousness of ample soap and water, thorough scrubbing, and singing “Happy Birthday” twice has largely fallen by the wayside — though if we’re asked, we’re willing to lie and claim we are practicing good hand hygiene.

“None of us wants to be seen as dirty, so we’re willing to lie that we washed our hands after we went to the bathroom,” Landon told CNN.

While research has found that women are more likely to lie about whether or not they’ve washed their hands, it’s men that seemingly don’t bother to do it at all. A 2013 study by researchers at Michigan State University found that 15 percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all after using the bathroom, compared with 7 percent of women, and when they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.

Still, it’s worth repeating again and again that frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is among the quickest and easiest ways to stay healthy — pandemic or no pandemic, vaccinated or not yet vaccinated. “Hand hygiene is a habit. It’s like wearing your seatbelt, or eating healthy or exercising regularly; it’s something you have to get used to doing,” Landon said.