My point of view, Writer's life

Level Thinking — Getting Ahead of Sneaky Viruses

This blog has nothing at all to do with writing, but a lot to do with a writers’ life. None of us want to lose valuable time because we’re laid low by a sneaky virus. And viruses can hide in the craziest places.

Today, instead of my writer’s hat, I’m wearing another hat—that of ex-public health nurse—so I can pass on tips and research I’ve gathered about unexpected places that we can pick up viruses. After all, it is October and the cold and flu season is just over the horizon.

Splatter patterns

Those of us that watch or read forensic-based mysteries know all about splatter patterns, so let’s look at how water splatters affect virus transmission. When I flush my toilet with the lid open, water and things in the water are aerosolized into an invisible cone-shaped spray, which can spread up to six feet in all directions.

Do you have a box of tissues on top of the toilet tank? In all probability, that tissue sticking out of the box is contaminated with microscopic drops of body effluvia. How about a toothbrush and drinking glass sitting beside the sink? Ditto. How about that bar of soap for hand washing. Ditto.

Faucets and ice/water machines

The other place that splatter pattern is important is in sinks. When I wash my hands, or dishes, or dirty washcloths, etc. under a faucet, microscopic drops of what I’m washing off flies upward and attaches itself to the underside of the faucet. When the next person comes along, what’s on the underside of the tap is washed onto their hands or into their drinking glass.

This isn’t so much of a concern when doing simple hand-washing. If I use soap and running water, I’ll rinse off not only what was on my hands originally, but whatever I picked up from the underside of the faucet.

Getting a drink of water is a whole other matter. Not only are faucets a problem, but if I refill my water bottle or a glass I’ve drunk from under an ice/water dispenser, my saliva is aerosolized onto the dispensing spout, ready to be washed into the next person’s glass or bottle. That’s why some ice machines and water coolers have signs that say, “Don’t fill water bottles here.”

Sanitizing wipes

Does your grocery store supply those pop-up, wet cloths to disinfect cart handles? They work great, but only if the container is closed between people taking a cloth. If the container is left open, the wipes not only dry out, but become contaminated. A person doesn’t have to cough or sneeze to expel air-borne viruses. Just breathing is enough to do it. So if someone with a cold breathed on the open wipe container, that little piece of wipe sticking out of the top of the container is now full of virus.


Delivery people, store employees, and possibly other customers have handled those groceries you just brought home. How many of them had a cold or the flu? This isn’t so much of a problem with things like canned or jarred food or boxes of dry food, such as pasta. However, viruses can live up to 72 hours on containers kept in a dark, moist, cool environment like the inside of a fridge.

Finally, expect all communal food not opened in your presence to be contaminated, whether it’s those sliced oranges under the plastic dome in the grocery’s fruit-and-vegetable section, or leftover birthday cake in the break room, or jelly beans on my co-worker’s desk.

How to get ahead of sneaky viruses

  • Mom or grandmom were right. Always flush the toilet with the lid down. If your toilet doesn’t have a lid, sit there until flushing has finished.
  • Store things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and water glasses inside a cupboard, not where the aerosolized spray will reach them.
  • I keep a spray bottle of vinegar beside my bathroom sink. Before I get water to brush my teeth, I spray some vinegar on the underside of the faucet—that little place where the screen is—rub it with my finger, then run the water for a couple of seconds.
  • When checking into a motel, clean the faucet, either with soap and water or one of those antiseptic wipes. I take a bleach pen with me when I travel. The first thing I do when I check into a motel room is to use a damp washcloth with a few drops of bleach added to wipe down the three dirtiest places in a motel room — the underside of the spigot, the light switches, and the TV remote. How do we know those are the three dirtiest places? A researcher swabbed motel rooms to see what would grow. The culture plates from some TV remotes were so overgrown with bacteria that they could not be counted.
  • Wiping down the spigot of an ice or ice and water machine is a good idea, too. And then, dispense ice or ice and water into a clean glass and pour it into your water bottle.
  • If you have a choice between getting water, including water to make tea or coffee, from a kitchenette sink or a bathroom, take the kitchenette every time, even if it means a slightly longer trip. And remember to wash the underside of the spigot.
  • Help the next person along. Close those sanitizing wipe containers.
  • If you’re lucky enough to be standing there when a cake is cut or dip and chips are opened, take all you plan to eat then. I’m not too keen on my co-workers knowing exactly how many taco chips I plan to eat, but putting my entire serving in a bowl and walking away with it is a lot safer than coming back an hour later and picking up a second or third serving. And, of course, absolutely no second dipping. Yes, the remaining dip/salsa/etc. immediately turns into a bacterial soup.
  • Food containers destined for the fridge should be washed with a mild disinfectant solution, rinsed well, and dried before they go in the fridge. This includes take-away or doggie-bags brought home from restaurants.

In the words of the late, greatly-missed Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Station, “Let’s be careful out there.”

I hope to see you — hale and healthy — next Tuesday, October 14th, for the second part of my writing a second draft series. This one will be emotion, emotion, emotion because that’s what second drafts are all about.