What we do (and don’t) know about how coronavirus spreads
If your social distancing routine has involved copious amounts of takeout and a few Amazon deliveries to your doorstep, you may have at some point wondered — What if the delivery worker is sick? Or the person who cooked the food? Is my stuff contaminated?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the 2019 novel coronavirus is spread primarily when healthy people come in close personal contact with a person who has COVID-19 who is coughing or sneezing. (Hence, why social distancing is so important.)
But, they haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone could get the virus from touching something that’s been contaminated and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes. (Hence all the hand-washing advice).
So how cautious should you be? Family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, sheds some light on what we do and don’t know so far about how the 2019 novel coronavirus lives on surfaces, and what you can do to minimize your risk at home.
How long does the 2019 novel coronavirus live on surfaces?
A: A yet-to-be-published study conducted by scientists from the CDC, National Institutes of Health and other institutions suggests that the 2019 novel coronavirus can live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to keep your home clean during this time. And if someone in your household is sick, it’s especially important to disinfect high-touch surfaces in your household every day. This includes doorknobs, handles, tables, countertops, keyboards and light switches.
The CDC recommends these tips for disinfecting surfaces in your home:
- If a surface is visibly dirty, clean it with soap and water first, then use a disinfectant.
- Wear disposable gloves.
- Make sure you have good ventilation in the area where you are cleaning.
- Use a diluted household bleach solution or an alcohol-based solution with at least 70% alcohol. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of cleaning products that meet its criteria for use against the 2019 novel coronavirus.
- Follow instructions on the cleaning product’s label, and check to make sure it isn’t expired.
- Wash your hands when you’re done.
Is my food safe?
A: The 2019 novel coronavirus causes respiratory illness, not the foodborne illness — meaning it affects the lungs, not the digestive system. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there’s currently no reason to believe that the virus has been spread via food or food packaging.
But officials still urge everyone to follow basic food safety guidelines that call for washing your hands before eating or preparing food, using clean utensils, and properly preparing and storing food. Restaurants and delivery services should also be following safe food preparation and handling practices.
What about that package that just arrived on my doorstep? Is it safe?
A: While that previously mentioned, a not-yet-published study found that the virus can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard, the CDC asserts that chances are low that the virus spreads from packaging that’s shipped over a period of days at ambient temperatures.
Can the virus be spread through water?
A: There’s no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread through drinking water or the use of pools or hot tubs, according to the CDC.
Can the virus live on my clothes?
A: Specific research hasn’t been done on how long this virus can survive on clothes, towels or other fabrics. But it’s still a good idea to change and wash your clothes regularly — especially if you’ve just come back home from the grocery store or are still reporting to work every day.
The CDC recommends using the warmest appropriate water setting for your clothes and drying them completely. (And save the shaking for when your laundry is clean, as it could potentially disperse germs from clothes when they’re dirty.)
If you’re caring for someone who’s sick, you can wash their clothes along with yours, but wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you remove the gloves. And don’t forget to disinfect hampers and the knobs on your washer and dryer.
Is it on my skin?
A: Germs can live on different parts of your body, but the main concern here is your hands. Your hands are what’s most likely to come in contact with germy surfaces and then touch your face, which is a potential path of transmission for the virus. So, while no one is suggesting that anyone take a hiatus from showers, you don’t need to scrub down your whole body multiple times a day like you should your hands.