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When 99.99% Isn't Enough

Hand sanitizer is everywhere these days; there are modern looking spheres in hospitals and restaurants, they come in foam and gel and, especially at Bath and Body Works, they come in a plethora of scents. Everywhere you turn there is hand sanitizer, which is usually good for killing germs and bacteria on your hands, 99.99% of germs to be exact. But that 0.01% can still get at you.

The Norovirus Threat

There are two kinds of viruses, enveloped and naked. Hand sanitizer only kills enveloped viruses, not naked ones. Naked viruses are strong enough to survive the 99.99% hand sanitizer and are quick to show you that you failed in killing them. I quickly learned about these viruses last January during my CNA class clinical.

I am a pre-med student and to gain more experience in the medical field, I decided to take a Certified Nursing Assistant class and get my license. At the end of the class, we are required to have a certain amount of clinical hours in a nursing home. During the classroom section of the class, we practiced skills and before and after every skill, we washed our hands. However, during clinicals, we just used hand sanitizer before and after entering rooms. It was quicker than the good, old-fashioned hand washing and since we had a lot to get done, hand sanitizer was much more convenient.

The first clinical day was on a Friday and when I got home, I took a nap since it was a long day that started fairly early. I woke up and did not feel quite right. I ran to the bathroom and all hell broke loose. Let’s just say I was sitting on the toilet with a bucket on my lap . . . sparing the details, it was not a pretty sight but my digestive system was definitely flushed out. I was pretty wiped out for the rest of the weekend but felt well enough to go to the next clinical day on Monday.

Classroom Quarantine

I told some of my classmates about my experience over the weekend and my partner said he had the same thing happen to him. As we went upstairs to our assigned unit, nurses told us the floor was on quarantine because of a certain naked virus called Norovirus, also known as winter vomiting disease. As we went to our new assigned unit, two other girls in my class started feeling strange and one ended up fainting. The next day, my partner did not show up and messaged me saying he got Norovirus again!

Norovirus is highly contagious and can mutate quickly. My partner contracted Norovirus when I did on Friday and then caught a different strain a few days later, poor guy. After learning that Norovirus is a naked virus and cannot be killed with hand sanitizer, I look back on my clinical experience and wonder if we actually washed our hands every time we used hand sanitizer, if the virus could have been avoided.

Nursing homes and hospitals are breeding grounds for dangerous diseases such as MRSA, Norovirus, pneumonia and UTI’s and most of these can be prevented simply by washing your hands! Going into the medical field, I am glad I had this experience, as I now know the importance of hand washing and that 99.99% is not always enough to protect myself and my future patients.

Jennifer Perrault is a pre-med student-contributor for Handwashing For Life Healthcare, sharing her scientific, behavioral and management experiences regarding handwashing as she moves along the learning curve to becoming a doctor.