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Materials Handling Practices During COVID (as of October 16, 2020)
Posted by Lori Ayre on October 16, 2020
Project REALM, a joint project of IMLS, OCLC, and Battelle Labs has been leading the charge in testing for the presence of infectious components of the Coronavirus in library materials and library environments. Their website contains all the testing results and details about their testing methodology. There is also a great FAQ page answering many of the questions we all have as we read through the testing results and read the medical journals (which they've also done a great job of compiling (here's the spreadsheet). I encourage you to sign-up for their updates if you haven't already.
As you may or may not know, we (The Galecia Group) had set up a site called QuarantineLibrarianship but we've since taken it down and are instead urging everyone to get their information from Project REALM. They have more resources to commit to staying on top of the topic. And of course, they have the testing program that provides extremely valuable data that libraries need in order to make informed decisions.
However, what Project REALM won't do is provide guidance about materials handling best practices during COVID. The reason is that there are too many unknowns and of course, no one wants to be liable for giving the wrong advice. But most libraries have developed materials handling practices based on the Project REALM results which have been released as they become available. Let's look at where we are as of today.
The first round of testing looked at material that is very commonly circulated in public libraries. The results showed that infectous virus was undetectable after three days (https://www.imls.gov/news/research-shows-virus-undetectable-five-highly-...).
However the next round of testing (Round 2) indicated that the virus was in fact detectable longer on certain types of material such as glossy books and board books. This resulted in many libraries increasing their quarantine time to four days.
Round 3 testing looked specifically at plastics such as DVD cases, storage bags and rigid plastic containers such as delivery totes. The study found that the virus WAS detectable after five days but they didn't test beyond that. So, who knows. The suggestion was that these items could be wiped down with 70% alcohol instead of waiting for the natural attenuation process to eliminate the virus.
Round 4 testing took commonly found library material (like Test 1) but this time looked at how long the virus survived when stacked.This study indicated that the virus stays even longer if material is stacked (so the air can't get to it to help kill the virus) indicating this material requires 5 days of quarantine to be completely free of infectious material.
Round 5 testing looked at fabrics and leather and found that the virus persisted five days on leather and less than 1 day on synthetic material.
An excellent overview of all testing results can be found here: https://www.oclc.org/realm/research.html#test5
So, what to do? Some libraries are still quarantining material for three days based on the first round of testing. Many increased their quarantine time to 4 days as a result of Round 2 testing. A few have increased quarantine time to 5 days based on Round 3. Handling delivery totes is a tough one. There is no clear quarantine time and wiping them down after each use seems overwhelming.
An excellent summary of materials handling best practices that takes all of the REALM Project testing into account has been develped by NYU (note that they have opted to quarantine delivery totes for 7 days instead of wiping them down): https://guides.nyu.edu/coronavirus/handling-library-materials.
What are most public libraries doing? Interestingly, while most public libraries added to the number of quarantine days as the testing unfolded, some have also moved in the opposite direction. For example, as of October 12th, the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (effectively their state library) has decided that 24 hours of quarantine is sufficient: https://dpi.wi.gov/wilibrariesforeveryone/recommended-materials-quarantine-time-reduced. This position is no doubt informed by the additional findings (not from Project REALM but from other studies) that the primary way the virus is spread is from people being in close contact with one another indoors rather than exposure to infected surfaces. It is clear that the amount of time you spend indoors without air circulating increases the chance of transmission. And of course, if people are unmasked, the risk is greatly increased. Touching things (fomite transmission) is NOT seen as the most common way people are getting the disease. See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html.
Wearing your mask whenever you are out in public or at work and washing your hands frequently is by far the most important way to keep everyone safe. See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.
It is worth noting that no libraries have reported an infection based on handling library material. It is also worth noting materials handling practices in other industries as it relates to similar material types. For example, when we go to the grocery store and get our mail and receive packages, we are no longer advised to wipe down groceries or quarantine our mail or packages. How different is library material? Mail is handled by postal workers. Packages are handled by UPS and FedEx workers and groceries are handled by all sorts of people! One could argue that the way people handle library material is different. For one thing our patrons are undoubtedly not wearing gloves (like postal workers and other delivery service providers are) and they spend a lot more time "handling" the material. I see library material handling most simliar to grocery stores where lots of people touch things without wearing gloves. So, there is a good reason to be cautious but perhaps we don't have to be so risk averse as to make library materials handling completely unmanageable.
IFLA has looked at library materials handling practices around the world and found quarantine times ranging from (as of October 13, 2020): zero quarantine (Denmark) to two weeks (Argentina) with most countries falling in the 24-73 hour range. See: https://www.ifla.org/covid-19-and-libraries.
There is no doubt about one thing: library staff should only handle material while masked and while wearing gloves. That way, they are more protected from exposure both in the air and on the material they are touching and they are prevented from touching their faces after handling the material.
Beyond that, the number of days your material should be quarantined will vary somewhat based on what you are circulating and how you are storing it and what your risk tolerance is. If material is quarantined in a stacked configuration, assume it will take longer for the virus to attenuate. If you can allow material to drop into bins or crates and just leave it alone for a period of time, that seems to be an effective approach that minimizes staff handling.
Based on what I see in the forums and what appears on library websites and what Project REALM has found and what IFLA reports and what we are learning about fomite (what you touch) versus aerosol (what you breathe) transission, it seems [to me] that a 3-4 day quarantine is reasonable, coupled with wiping down plastic materials before re-circulating them (with 70% alcohol wipes). Regularly disinfecting delivery totes with a spray is also recommended. That's my belief. You will have to decide for yourself of course.