One of the most terrifying things about the new coronavirus is how rapidly, and seemingly easily, it can spread. Experts are still learning about how the virus is transmitted, but according to the CDC, it’s believed that it spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. However, there are also reports that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for days.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were at least 59,502 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., though researchers have warned that for every confirmed case, five to ten additional people may be infected with the virus. At this point, we know we should be staying at home, and at least six feet away from anyone we don’t live with, as much as possible — and more than half of Americans have been ordered to do so. We’ve been told to wash our hands constantly, clean high-touch surfaces, and avoid touching our faces.
But if the virus can live on surfaces (and research indicates it can), does that mean you also need to be disinfecting everything you buy at the grocery store? Is it safe to order packages online? Here’s what we know so far.
How long can the coronavirus live on plastic, cardboard, and other surfaces?
It depends on the surface. A study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus could survive for the longest — up to three days — on nonporous surfaces like plastic and steel. However, researchers also found that the virus’s ability to infect dropped sharply in this time.
The study found that the virus couldn’t survive as long on cardboard, a more porous surface, where it disintegrated over the course of a day.
But there’s still a lot that researchers don’t know. A study released Monday by the CDC found that the coronavirus survived for up to 17 days on some surfaces aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which experienced a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year. However, the CDC said that researchers couldn’t “determine whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces,” and that further research was needed.
How likely are you to get infected from touching a contaminated surface?
Right now, experts say that the risk of getting infected from touching a contaminated surface is low. For a surface that you touch — like a can of food at the grocery store, or a package from Amazon — to be contaminated with the virus, it would have to have been recently handled by someone who is sick.
And so far, there’s not much evidence that people have become infected from touching a contaminated surface. According to the CDC, experts believe that the main way the coronavirus spreads is person-to-person, through respiratory droplets. The CDC writes: “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 is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Similarly, “Everything at the grocery store and restaurant containers and bags could in theory have infectious virus on them,” Dr. Linsey Marr, an expert in the transmission of viruses by aerosol at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times. “We could go crazy discussing these ‘what-ifs’ because everyone is a potential source, so we have to focus on the biggest risks.”
If you’re concerned that you may have touched a contaminated surface, Marr recommends wiping the item with disinfecting wipes and washing your hands.
Is the virus airborne?
There’s been some debate among experts about whether the coronavirus is airborne. The World Health Organization had initially said that the virus could not travel through the air, but recent research indicates that it can stay suspended in the air for about 30 minutes (before settling on surfaces).
Researchers believe that the virus disperses quickly in the air, meaning that it doesn’t linger at high enough levels to pose a risk to most people who are not physically close to an infected person. However, these findings have implications for people who are in close contact with someone who is sick, including health-care workers and family members, and experts say that more research is needed.
Is it safe to order packages online?
Researchers have found that the coronavirus disintegrates on cardboard within 24 hours, and the CDC has said that the risk of the virus being transmitted via packages is low. The Times reports that the surgeon general has “indicated that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.” However, it’s still a good idea to dispose of any packaging, and then wash your hands.
What about ordering groceries or getting food delivered?
According to the CDC, there’s a low risk that the virus can spread “from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures.” Additionally, the CDC says that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 transmission is associated with food.
In general, if you’re worried about coming in contact with potentially infected surfaces, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands — especially before eating, preparing food, or touching your face. And right now, there’s no harm in being extra cautious, especially if you live in an area experiencing an outbreak.
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