Public Bathrooms Are a Big Question Mark

New data suggests shared bathrooms could be bad news for the pandemic

Photo: Tanja-Tiziana, Doublecrossed Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Scientists have confirmed that the virus that causes Covid-19 can be found in stool. In a new report published Monday in Emerging Infectious Diseases (an open access journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), researchers report that the virus was found and isolated from the feces of a person in China with the coronavirus who died. “Confirmation of infectious virus in feces affirms the potential for fecal-oral or fecal-respiratory transmission and warrants further study,” the authors write.

Whether the virus could be found in stool has been suspected for some time. And the confirmation raises the question: Can it spread from stool?

That remains unknown. Could you get the virus if you use a heavily trafficked public restroom, where fecal matter gets into the air during flushing (sorry for that mental image). Scientists don’t know. But concerns remain for people who oversee the cleaning of hospitals, where people with high viral loads are being taken care of.

Public restrooms raise other questions about viral spread. People touch doorknobs and other surfaces like the toilet, sink, and soap dispensers. They may use bathrooms at work and airports to brush their teeth — further spreading bodily fluids. How often are these spaces cleaned?

As the Washington Post reports, some businesses view their bathrooms as a barrier to reopening. In response, they’re hiring bathroom monitors to ensure distancing, moving urinals to create more space, installing touch-free sinks and dryers, and implementing very regular cleanings (including some at intervals of every 30 minutes).

The bathroom issue could be tough to navigate for nearly any kind of business. Gas stations may have to worry about the number of road trippers from other states, and any workplace will need to think about how to keep people safe from their colleagues. In a recent story for Elemental experts recommend the following precautions:

“If the toilet has a lid, close it before flushing… If there’s an exhaust fan, leave it running when you leave the bathroom. Don’t go into the bathroom right after someone else. And, of course, wash your hands properly and often.”

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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