A new test can determine if the virus that causes COVID-19 is lingering on surfaces.
NBC 6 Responds and Telemundo 51 Responde teamed up to test some frequently-touched surfaces like door handles, grocery carts, and ATM keypads.
The test is made by San Francisco-based company Phylagen.
It’s a test our colleagues at the TODAY Show used in July when they tested surfaces in five different states, including Florida. Nearly 20% of the samples taken in Miami were positive for SARS-CoV-2.
Earlier this month, NBC 6 Responds and Telemundo 51 Responde took the test a step further. Our team traveled across Miami-Dade and Broward and swabbed 50 surfaces in the cities with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.
At Fort Lauderdale Beach, we took three samples from a public restroom: the sink, toilet handle, and hand sanitizer. They were all negative.
Inside of a grocery store in Broward, the sample from a shopping cart came back undetermined while the samples from the door handle of a freezer and a shopping basket came back negative.
We didn’t get any positive hits from the keyboard at a parking pay station, ATM, gas pump or at the restaurants we visited.
The virus was detected in two shopping malls in Miami-Dade and Broward.
At Westland Mall in Hialeah, samples from a small door handle, children’s shopping cart, and the door handle of a bathroom stall all came back positive for coronavirus.
At the Galleria mall in Fort Lauderdale, a handle from a bathroom stall was positive too.
A sample taken on the escalator rail inside of the Government Center Metro Rail station came back positive for the virus.
Of the 50 swabs, the lab determined five were positive, two were undetermined, and the rest came back negative. That’s a 10% to 14% positivity rate.
We shared the results with infectious disease specialist Dr. Aileen Marty.
“Your results shouldn’t have been that high because we are all supposed to be practicing hand hygiene, and we are all supposed to using barriers when we touch high-touch areas,” Dr. Marty said.
Though touching contaminated surfaces is not the main way COVID-19 spreads, Dr. Marty suggests we should all be conscious of what, when, and how we are touching surfaces.
“They should be very alert to all their actions, which means first of all that they dedicate a hand to be a dirty hand, and the other hand to be the clean hand, so their personal items like their purse, like their phone, like their keys, should be handled by their clean hand,” Dr. Marty explained.
The test doesn’t specify if the virus was alive and infectious at the time we swabbed, but Phylagen’s CEO Dr. Jessica Green says a positive result indicates someone was shedding the virus in that area.
“The places you got hits indicates there was somebody within the past couple of days who was breathing or talking or laughing or touching surfaces when they were carrying the virus themselves,” Dr. Green said.
She says the test is a tool that businesses, schools, and companies can use to determine if they are seeing a rise in the number of people infected or if they need to increase their cleaning protocols.
After sharing our results, Miami-Dade officials told NBC 6 cleaning efforts at the Metro Rail station were intensified.
“Obviously we want to help stop the spread, we have to have facial coverings to use transit, we are cleaning our stations like three times a day, we are cleaning our vehicles multiple times a day,” said Miami-Dade County Transportation and Public Works Director Alice Bravo.
A management company representing both the Galleria and Westland malls sent the following statement: “While we cannot confirm the validity of the tests conducted by Telemundo 51 (and NBC 6), health and safety is of the utmost importance to us and we have strict cleaning regimens in place to try and provide as safe an environment for our customers as possible. We frequently clean and disinfect high-traffic and high-touch areas throughout the center. While health officials have determined that surface contamination is not the most likely place for transmission, we still strongly encourage our customers to practice personal hygiene safety practices such as disinfecting their hands and wearing masks. Hand sanitation stations can be found at each entrance and throughout the center. In addition, furniture has been properly distanced and drinking fountains have been disabled. We are continuously fine-tuning and adapting our safety and cleaning protocols in line with advice from national and local health authorities.”
While the test gives some insight into where the virus could be lingering, it is not designed to replace cleaning surfaces.
According to the CDC, the most common way for transmission of COVID-19 is from person-to-person through respiratory droplets.
While most of our positive hits were at indoor locations, the company says the virus can persist several hours outdoors, adding they generally expect to find fewer positive samples outdoors.