The fomite trap
Before delving into this tale, it is important to understand that a ‘fomite’ is an object or surface, onto which a virus can be deposited by one person, and from which it can therefore be picked up by another, who may then go on to become infected if they – perhaps inadvertently – touch their face before washing their hands.
And so we come to the fomite trap:
The lockdown is affecting different parts of society in different ways, due to the varying degrees with which businesses are continuing (or not) to operate. Banks are one such example, and there is one branch of one bank in particular that I sometimes visit.
It is a client’s bank, and the branch is on my route home from that client’s premises – I sometimes call in on my way home from there to pay in cheques on their behalf if the person who normally deals with this task isn’t around. I’ve been doing this during the lockdown because that person is shielding – they feel they are particularly vulnerable, so choosing to remain at home.
The branch is operating on reduced hours, and those days I am at this particular client, I don’t pass the bank early enough; it’s already closed.
So what I’ve been doing is putting the paying in slip and any cheques into an envelope, clearly marked as being for this particular company on the envelope (as well as that information obviously being on the paying in slip and the payee marked on the cheques) and popping it in the bank’s letterbox.
(I should add that in doing this I obviously need to touch said letterbox – itself a fomite – to push it open. However, I go to the bank knowing in advance that I need to do this, so I take precautions.)
On a recent trip to make a deposit, I noticed that had taped a sign outside, headed ‘Coronavirus’ and topped with the question ‘PAYING IN CHEQUES?’. It read:
Don’t queue & potentially expose yourself to the virus.
Put your cheque(s) in an envelope with a paying-in-slip or just write your account details on the front.
And post in the letter box.
So the bank were advising people to do precisely what I had already been doing. Great!
Obviously, people might have come to the bank unprepared for the possibility that they might be advised to do this instead of queueing to deposit cheques the normal way – or unprepared for the possibility that they might need to do this due to reduced opening hours. While some – but not all – of those people might have pens, it’s unlikely that (m)any would have envelopes.
But the bank had thought of that. They had helpfully provided these items for people to use. There were envelopes, and there were pens.
Both in A4 plastic sleeves, also taped up near the letterbox.
It shouldn’t take a genius to see the problem here – but for readers who aren’t geniuses, those plastic sleeves are fomites. If an infected person (who perhaps doesn’t realise they are infected) puts their hand in one of those sleeves, they could potentially leave traces of the virus on/in it for the next person to pick up.
Within the sleeves, the envelopes might be a smaller risk – they’re paper, and I believe the virus doesn’t survive as long on paper, but how long is not as long? And then there are the pens – plastic. Fomites.
The first time I saw this, I didn’t have my phone on me so couldn’t take any pictures – but I made a point of having it with me for the second time (and also took a picture the third time as well). The set-up changed with each of those three visits.
The first time, there were separate sleeves for the envelopes and pens. Some of the envelopes were portruding from the top of the sleeve – which is helpful for the first ‘n’ customers depositing cheques, but eventually the ones fully within the sleeve would be needed. The pens, being heavier, were all at the bottom of their sleeve – to retrieve one of these it would be necessary to reach right into the sleeve.
Between that first time and the second, I drove past and noticed that the sleeve containing the envelopes was just about falling apart.
The second actual visit, and there was just the one sleeve containing envelopes (I didn’t notice any pens) – again with some portruding.
And the third time, there was again just a single sleeve, this time containing envelopes and a single pen. It was taped up more securely, but vertically. This meant the envelopes couldn’t so easily portrude from the top – which is presumably why it had been split so that one could be removed without touching the sleeve itself.
But the pen? Not so much. Customers who need it would still have to reach inside the fomite in order to use that fomite.
Now, I should say that although I’ve posted this under the ‘Tales from the pandumbic’ heading, and I’m pointing out that this branch of this bank (no idea if other branches/banks are doing similar) is doing something a bit silly, the reality is that they are trying to do something sensible; trying to help and protect their customers in what is a very difficult situation. And the change in the way they’ve provided the envelopes/pens over the course of my visits suggests that they might be spotting flaws and trying to address them. And I respect them for that.
They just haven’t quite got it right. Yet.