According to Johns Hopkins, in the last week, 45 percent of COVID-19 tests in South Dakota came back positive. That means there is a lot of the virus out there in our state. You can’t see, touch or smell it, but in tonight’s KELOLAND News Investigation, we have proof that COVID-19 is hanging out in places where many people frequent.

They’re places most people touch: parking meters, door handles, city benches and mailboxes. Armed with Enviral Tech’s surface testing kits, we set out to see if the coronavirus was hanging out on these surfaces in downtown Sioux Falls.

KELOLAND News test eight surfaces touched by the public around Sioux Falls

“It can last from hours to days and it depends on heat and how much UV light from the sun is touching it,” SDSU Public Health Specialist Laura Dirks said.

The scientists behind Enviral Tech’s Surface Testing Kit say it’s a way to stop the spread of the virus in buildings, such as nursing homes.

“As scientists, we realized we actually had some tools that could really make a difference to help people where they work and there they live,” Enviral Tech Co-Founder Shula Jaron said.

Enviral Tech tested dozens of long-term care facilities in six states.

“We actually discovered a number of potential outbreaks where we were discovering COVID on surfaces. They didn’t have anybody in those facilities that they knew were COVID positive,” Jaron said.

Those asymptomatic carriers were removed from the buildings and outbreaks among residents were averted.

“And that’s the whole purpose to what we’re doing, is really trying to help give visibility to what’s happening in your facility so you can take action. That’s the most important thing is that there is a reaction to the results, so that we don’t continue to spend the virus around.”

Shula Jaron, Co-Founder of Enviral Tech

So what about our tests? They did not detect any COVID-19 on the parking meter keypad in the parking ramp, or the street parking meter. A building door on Phillips Ave also tested negative, as well as a downtown bench. A bus stop vending machine? Also negative for COVID-19. However, our tests results showed that the virus was on three surfaces that we swabbed:

  • The USPS Drop Box tested borderline for virus particles.
  • The Sioux Empire Library Door had a medium number of virus particles
  • The Minnehaha County Administration Door had a high number of COVID-19 particles.

“When it’s high or medium, that typically happens when we have an active shedder in the building itself,” Jaron said.

The borderline test on the mailbox means the virus may have been there for a while longer.

Kennecke: Does it surprise you that we found COVID-19 on surfaces?
Jaron: Not at all. In our own testing what we have found is that remnants of the virus can last on surfaces for weeks at a time. That doesn’t mean it’s infectious. It just means that we can detect pieces of it that are still there. So if a surface isn’t being cleaned and disinfected, I’m not surprised we would detect it.

Enviral Tech’s lab for surface test results

The most common way COVID-19 is transmitted is from breathing in respiratory droplets, but the fact that it can be found on surfaces is an indication of community spread.

“We also have a skyrocketing rate of COVID in communities. And so people are likely out there are asymptomatic. They don’t know they have COVID. They have no reason to think they have COVID. And they’re out there going about their daily business and spreading it onto surfaces,” Jaron said.

Kennecke: If you touched a door handle and it was loaded with virus, you really would have to touch your face, right—to get it?
Dirks: Yes, absolutely. You can’t just get it directly from the door handle. You have to touch a mucosal membrane—your face, your eyes, your mouth and that’s why the recommendation is to clean and disinfect those commonly used surfaces.

Public health officials say our test results show that it’s more important than ever to follow CDC guidelines when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Wear your face covering, if you can, to prevent contamination of surfaces and especially before you eat or do anything where you touch your eyes or mouth, make sure you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer,” Dirks said.

“Use those precautions we keep being told to use and that’s going to have a huge impact on the spread and your own safety out in the world,” Jaron said.

Enviral Tech’s testing is subscription based and the turnaround for results is 24 hours. A couple hundred long-term care facilities across the nation are using the tests weekly at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 a month.