COVID-19 is a new threat to public health that is likely to linger far into the future. Scientists are learning more every day about the virus. Some of their early predictions have been proven to be wrong. We appreciate the fact that they are working so hard to keep us safe. However, it can be irritating to learn that things we have gotten into the habit of doing won’t protect us. And, scientists keep clarifying things that we haven’t understood clearly. For instance, the CDC has added language to their website explaining that, while the virus can live on surfaces, that is not the leading cause of infection, and we may not need to be quite so afraid of objects.
A statement from the CDC said, “The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person. Based on data from lab studies on COVID-19 and what we know about similar respiratory diseases, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
That means that washing your hands after touching communal surfaces is important but not as important as steering clear of people who appear to be ill or aren’t wearing masks. In high occupancy spaces — like stores, offices and medical centers, scrubbing surfaces is essential. But, you don’t have to be terrified of a potluck with healthy people while practicing safe distancing.
“What they’re saying is that high touch surfaces like railings and doorknobs, elevator buttons are not the primary driver of the infection in the United States,” said Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist and biology professor at the Univ. of Massachusetts. “But it’s still a bad idea to touch your face. If someone who is infectious coughs on their hand and shakes your hand and you rub your eyes — yes, you’re infected. Someone’s drinking from a glass, and you pick it up near the rim and later rub your eyes or mouth, you’re infected.”
COVID-19 can live up to three days on plastic and steel, but on a surface, the amount of viable virus begins to disintegrate in mere hours. So, the virus is far more infectious right after someone sneezes on a surface — not days later. If someone ill breathes near you or coughs, you can be immediately in contact with the virus hitting your mouth, nose or eyes. But, when you touch things, if you don’t touch your face, you are far less likely to become ill.
“There’s a long chain of events that would need to happen for someone to become infected through contact with groceries, mail, takeout containers or other surfaces,” said Prof. Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist of Harvard Medical School. “The last step in that causal chain is touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your contaminated hand, so the best way to make sure the chain is broken is washing your hands.”
And, not all surfaces are created equal when it comes to the transmission of the virus. For instance, porous materials, like cloth and paper, are far less likely to be contaminated than metal or plastic. And areas that are touched frequently are far more dangerous. A door handle touched by many people is likely to have the virus. In contrast, the plastic bag your delivery of Chinese food was handled by only a few people at the restaurant.
It’s essential to protect yourself from the virus but, you don’t need to leave your mail unopen for 72 hours. You can open it, discard the envelope or packaging and wash your hands to avoid the virus. This clarification might make you feel a little less worried during this stressful time.