February 3, 2015

Following the recent public health scares of Ebola and, more recently, measles, you would think that our public Employees Must Wash Handsofficials would be encouraging increased observance of hand washing and other measures known to prevent infection. Well, in the case of newly election North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), you’d be wrong.

In a Q&A session at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday, Tillis recalled a story from his time in the North Carolina state senate complaining that the U.S. is one of the most regulated nations in the history of the planet.” Talking Points Memo has the details:

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'” the senator said.

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience.

Wrapping up the Q&A, the moderator joked to Tillis, “I’m not sure I’m gonna shake your hand.”

Putting aside the “ick” factor of imaging your server having urine or feces on his hands, lack of hang hygiene is a genuine threat to public health. And it’s not just a cold or the flu, that you’re at risk for from a server with lax hand hygiene: Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is also a threat. C. diff is transferred from an infected person or carrier to the uninfected through the “fecal-oral” route (i.e. bacteria from poop on someone’s hands or a surface enters another person’s body through their mouth and moves down into the gut).

We have previously noted that C. diff is found in a high percentage of supermarket meat. Given that restaurants and supermarkets often use the same sources, there’s good reason to believe as much as 40% of the meat served in restaurants contains similar amounts of the bacteria. Further, studies have found C. diff bacteria in soil, farm animals, and even water supplies. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill C. diff. The only way to remove the spores from the hands of a server or healthcare workers is by washing with soap and water.

We all have a role to play in protecting public health. I hope that Tillis’ constituents will remind him of his.

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