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Study: Coronavirus lives on fabric used in uniforms, masks for 72 hours, survives most washing machines

Alfiya Mityukova, a registered nurse, and Roderick Johnson, a research assistant (DOD/Released)
February 26, 2021

Scientists are now warning that the virus which causes COVID-19 can remain on fabric — used for clothing, upholstery, or cloth masks — for up to three days, and average washing machines don’t reach a high enough temperature to effectively sanitize the material.

Research from microbiologist Dr. Katie Laird, virologist Dr. Maitreyi Shivkumar and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Lucy Owen at De Montfort University Leicester showed that polyester posed the greatest risk, with the infectious virus still present after 72 hours and capable of transferring to other surfaces.

On 100 percent cotton samples, the virus lasted for one day. On a poly-cotton blend, the virus remained for six hours, contaminated by viral droplets that mimic human saliva.

“When the pandemic first started, there was very little understanding of how long coronavirus could survive on textiles,” said Dr. Katie Laird, Head of the Infectious Disease Research Group at DMU.

The results showed the virus could be particularly dangerous where health-care workers clothes are concerned. Unless they are frequently washed, the fabrics could contribute to spreading the virus from patient to patient.

“Our findings show that three of the most commonly used textiles in healthcare pose a risk for transmission of the virus. If nurses and healthcare workers take their uniforms home, they could be leaving traces of the virus on other surfaces,” Laird continued.

Researchers also found that soap and extremely hot water reaching 153 degrees Fahrenheit was needed to effectively sanitize 100 percent cotton fabric, but common household washing machines usually only reach around 130 degrees on their hottest settings.

“We now know that the virus can survive for up to 72 hours on some textiles and that it can transfer to other surfaces too,” Dr. Laird said.  “This research has reinforced my recommendation that all healthcare uniforms should be washed on site at hospitals or at an industrial laundry. These wash methods are regulated and nurses and healthcare workers do not have to worry about potentially taking the virus home.” 

This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19 could remain in Americans’ lives well into next year, despite vaccine distribution nationwide.

“I think it’s possible that that’s the case,” Fauci told CNN after being asked when Americans can return to normal. “It really depends on what you mean by ‘normality.’ If normality means exactly the way things were before we had this happen to us, I can’t predict that.”

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order requiring masks to be worn on all Federal property.

“Accordingly, to protect the Federal workforce and individuals interacting with the Federal workforce, and to ensure the continuity of Government services and activities, on-duty or on-site Federal employees, on-site Federal contractors, and other individuals in Federal buildings and on Federal lands should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines,” the order stated.