Back in March, shortly after nationwide lockdowns began, a video went viral that featured a genial Midwestern doctor sporting a ponytail and scrubs. “We have a dilemma in society that we need to eat to live, but we also need to get that food,” he said, from his pleasant, cream-colored kitchen. “And that getting of food is now risky.” Then he proceeded to show us how to disinfect our groceries. He separated his countertop into a “clean side” and a “dirty side.” He swabbed his chicken stock with sanitizing wipes. He plunked his produce in a soapy bath in the sink. When I first saw that video, I will admit: It freaked me out a little. I felt like pathogens were lurking on every bag of frozen peas. But perhaps, I thought, if I just scrubbed those bags of frozen peas with Lysol, my family would be fine! It turned out, of course, that surface transmission is not a significant way COVID spreads, and we never really needed to disinfect our pea bags after all. Rewatching that video feels like a very weird time capsule now. So I called up Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to discuss the genesis of that viral video and ask how he feels about it all these months later.
Laura Bennett: On March 24, when you first published the grocery video, had you treated any COVID patients yet?
Jeffrey VanWingen: No, I hadn’t. The inception of that video was being faced with a virus that we really didn’t know a lot about. So I sat with my teenage son and we talked about how we could be part of the solution. Gov. Whitmer was likely going to shut the state down. Looking at how people had responded frantically to that, we knew grocery shopping was going to be an affair where people were likely going to put themselves at risk. My son brought up making a video and putting it out there. He provided that level of expertise and I provided the medical side.
What was your initial reaction to your son’s advice?
Well, I’m not too eager to put myself out there. I’m pretty content in my trench. I’ve been treating the same population of people for 20 years. I thought it would be important, but I didn’t think it would be as widely spread as it would.
I had a friend who lives in India reach out to me and he said, “Wow, you were on our national television. Is that your kitchen? You have a very nice kitchen.”
You do have a nice kitchen. So why do you think that video was shared so widely when the pandemic first hit the U.S.?
Well, I hope that it didn’t go viral because of fear, as much as the need for information.
I have to admit, when I watched this video back in March, it kind of traumatized me. There was something appealing about the prospect of imposing order on the chaos of early lockdown life by, like, soaking my lemons in a soap bath. But for a while after seeing your video, I was sponging down my milk cartons in bleach.
Yeah. So at that point, the National Institutes of Health had come out with some data that showed that the virus was viable on surfaces for upwards of three days and in the air for upwards of an hour. Thankfully though, at this point, we now understand that this would absolutely be a worst-case scenario and does not so much play out in the real world setting.
At the very beginning, what led you to believe that surface transmission was prevalent enough to warrant making this video?
Well, it was a respiratory virus. As family doctors, we really work toward primary prevention. Toward preventing as best we can the acquisition of illness through any means possible. And I think that actually looking at this as a respiratory virus, that had the potential for aerosolization, for droplets, or for fomite spread, I thought it was important to cover all of those possibilities. Now I feel like the most important part of the video was about basically just doing what you could to not put yourself in front of crowds of people. But I think the grocery aspect and how to treat groceries in the video really is the part that took off.
How did this video intersect with your life as a doctor? Were patients frantically asking you whether they should disinfect the plastic wrap around their broccoli?
I got a few calls at the office and tried to field what I could. And you want to help everybody, but you only have 24 hours in the day.
Did you ever get recognized in your community?
Well, the nice thing is that I wear a mask when I’m on the street. So it kind of worked out that way.
I feel like my mom would still recognize you. She’s watched that video many times. I imagine your family was pretty surprised that you became a viral celebrity.
The whole metaphor of going viral, in the face of a virus, it was just really ironic.
At first my son was blowing up my texts, telling me that the video was trending No. 3 on YouTube in the whole world.
What did you say to that?
Well, I said, “Wow.” And my other reaction was, “Wow. I hope it’s received in a positive light and I hope it’s not spreading fear among people.”
I think it got real for my wife when she saw our kitchen counter CGI’d on the NBC Nightly News. Lester Holt did a story and there was a cut of these coffins being buried en masse in New York City and it was just this horrible news night and then it cuts to a story and there’s my video on national news. And they made a CGI of my kitchen counter with a line down the middle.
When did you start to worry about the possibility that the video was fearmongering?
It was very soon after I made that video that fomite transmission was determined to be not the primary mode of transmission. Being an empathetic individual, of course, my whole goal is helping people. And when you put things out in such a huge way, you just want it to be interpreted the best possible way. And I think I read through most all the comments on YouTube and virtually all of them were positive. A lot of them were encouraging, “Hey, way to go. Thanks for being out there, trying to help in this situation.” But in a situation where information is evolving so quickly and on a platform where you really can’t change that information, you’re kind of locked in. That was difficult to navigate.
How did you feel when you learned that fomite transmission wasn’t a huge risk factor?
Well, on one hand, there was a bit of relief, that we don’t have to be fully vigilant about wiping everything down and being so cautious. But it’s still not a zero risk scenario. I mean, people can still wipe things down if they want it to be completely airtight. But at that point, when I made the video, there was really no consideration for universal masking recommendations, just to give you a sense of how things have changed.
Did you ever think about taking the video down, as time went on?
Yeah. We had looked at that but with the momentum … Also, I put, I think, two different videos out subsequently, with updates. You just don’t want to make a situation where people are so bound by fear from this virus.
Did you see the other video I made about hope?
Yes, I’m a VanWingen completist.
Well, I’m a bit quirky. I collect these placards from quarantine from the past [one that says “QUARANTINE! SMALL POX,” for instance], and thinking about the past makes me feel hope about the future. So I wanted to empower people to feel hopeful about the vaccine.
Do you feel like you’ve learned anything from your experience about how internet virality works? The way this video exists on its own, and you can issue updates afterward as public health information changes, but of course that video still travels on its own and feels like an artifact from its time.
Boy. It’s hard to say. I think that’s a reflection for me to revisit when I can rest after this pandemic is done. Sometimes it just feels like a weird dream.
What’s your procedure like when you bring groceries home now?
We have our groceries delivered, and we set them aside in the cupboards and the refrigerator, washing our hands afterwards.
But you’re not Lysoling your chicken broth cartons anymore?
No. Maybe if I want to use something right away, I might just wipe it down briefly and then wash my hands. Or with takeout food, if we get takeout food, I’ll plate it and then throw the packaging away and then wash my hands.
What about the soap bath for your vegetables?
No soap bath. We just set them aside.