Opinion: Remember importance of hand hygiene

Aaron Sones uses hand sanitizer during the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA) career expo on Thursday,  March 12, 2020, at the World Congress Center in Atlanta. This year, additional safety measures were implemented, including mandatory hard hats and incremental wipe downs. (Christina Matacotta, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Aaron Sones uses hand sanitizer during the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA) career expo on Thursday, March 12, 2020, at the World Congress Center in Atlanta. This year, additional safety measures were implemented, including mandatory hard hats and incremental wipe downs. (Christina Matacotta, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

When it comes to the spread of disease, the first line of defense is quite simple – it’s always proper hand hygiene. “Wash your dang hands.”

The past year has been turbulent, to say the least. The COVID-19 pandemic changed how we do most everything in our day-to-day lives, including wearing masks, social distancing, increased hand hygiene, and much more. Though we are starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel, it is crucial we continue to practice this increased level of vigilance, especially when it comes to maintaining healthy habits like hand hygiene.

The world is a scary place and after serving as the chief of staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I have a better appreciation that a health threat anywhere is in fact a health threat everywhere. I often get questions from friends and family about what they need to be doing to stay safe.

We live in a society where we want a silver bullet, an easy solution to the problems we face. When it comes to the spread of disease, the first line of defense is quite simple – it’s always proper hand hygiene. As I received this question over and over, it quickly became a running joke that I would always say, “wash your dang hands.”

Kyle McGowan
Kyle McGowan

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

As important as vaccines, social distancing, masks, etc. are, proper hand hygiene is a major contributor to stopping the spread of disease, not just COVID-19. It’s a simple, effective, and easy way to provide not only yourself but those around you with a good level of protection from certain infectious diseases. And by proper hand hygiene, I mean following all the guidelines set out by the CDC and FDA for washing hands and using quality hand sanitizer.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a critical need for hand sanitizer, and our country simply was not prepared to meet the unprecedented demand. This generated an influx of hand sanitizer products that did not meet the CDC and FDA’s benchmarks and were being manufactured by those with limited, or even zero, experience producing the product. Well-intentioned companies, including breweries and distilleries, worked to help fill this supply gap. Unfortunately, many did so without the appropriate infrastructure or materials to develop quality hand sanitizers that were effective in combating COVID-19.

So, to ensure proper efficacy and safety the CDC laid out guidelines on how to select and use hand sanitizers that must be followed. Hand sanitizers must contain at least 60 percent alcohol for efficacy, and with the growing number of manufacturers, it is important to make sure the product is not listed on FDA’s Hand Sanitizer Do-Not-Use List. The FDA has currently identified 230 hand sanitizer products that were marketed in 2020 and found to be unsafe or ineffective, and it is critically important that the FDA continues to provide oversight to protect Americans.

Thankfully, major trusted retailers have caught up to the demand, bolstered their supplies, and are able to make hand sanitizers that follow all of the critical CDC and FDA guidelines. What is most important now is to make sure those are the hand sanitizers being used and distributed.

A new habit that has been developed is refilling safe, effective hand sanitizer bottles with lower quality, and at times dangerous, sanitizers, which lowers its efficacy and potentially poses serious reactions. It is critical only FDA and CDC-approved hand sanitizers are used as a matter of public health.

When it comes to public health, our schools, hospitals, businesses, etc. must look to the CDC and FDA for best practices: do not refill or mix hand sanitizers, complement hand washing with hand sanitizer, and only use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. In turn, the FDA and CDC must continue to monitor and provide oversight to protect Americans from toxic and ineffective hand sanitizers, to ensure the effectiveness of healthy hand hygiene practices as we continue to overcome this disease.

As kids start going back to the classroom full-time, adults head back to the office, and traveling swells, we need to be aware of what we are using for hand hygiene. It has become common practice to see bottles and dispensers of hand sanitizer at restaurants, offices, shops, and nearly everywhere else. This is a great practice that should continue; however, we must make sure that the product inside those containers is safe, effective, and of the highest quality.

Kyle McGowan is a founding partner at Atlanta-based Ascendant Strategic Partners. He was most recently chief of staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that role, he oversaw the day-to-day operations and served as the senior advisor to the CDC Director, including providing strategic planning and guidance to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

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