Since the coronavirus pandemic began, fear of contracting the virus from surfaces and objects has fueled a mad dash for disinfectant wipes and frantic scrubbing of everyday items like groceries and takeout containers.
Like the virus itself, our knowledge of how COVID-19 spreads is still new. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says contaminated surfaces are not the main way the virus is transmitted, the agency hasn’t ruled surfaces out as a possible mode of infection. But disinfecting those groceries may not be the best way to protect yourself from the virus.
“If you want a reliable way to prevent yourself from getting the coronavirus, worry less about the surfaces you touch, and worry more about how frequently you wash your hands,” says Dr. Dara Kass, a Yahoo News Medical Contributor and associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “Washing your hands, even if you touch a contaminated surface, is the best way to protect yourself from getting the coronavirus. It’s really that simple. And it’s what we’ve been saying all along.
“I think you do what you feel most comfortable with,” Kass adds of disinfecting surfaces. “It is really unlikely that you’re going to get coronavirus from a surface in the mail, or your packages, or your groceries. But there’s really no harm in wiping things down.”
Confusion over how the virus is transmitted was reignited last week when the CDC edited the “How COVID-19 Spreads” page on their COVID-19 website to mention contaminated surfaces and objects under a new heading entitled, “The virus does not spread easily in other ways.” After some news organizations suggested that the edit indicated the organization had downgraded its warnings on the virus spreading on surfaces, CDC edited the page again and issued a statement on its website on May 22.
“This change was intended to make it easier to read, and was not a result of any new science. After media reports appeared that suggested a change in CDC’s view on transmissibility, it became clear that these edits were confusing. Therefore, we have once again edited the page to provide clarity,” CDC said.
The virus is spread through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs, or while talking. One can become infected through close contact if these droplets land on the nose, mouth or eyes, or by inhaling them, which is why measures like wearing a mask and keeping 6 feet away from others have been recommended.
In theory, it is possible that these droplets could also spread the virus if they land on a surface and a person touches that surface before touching their face. But as CDC clarified in its May 22 statement, this is not the primary mode of infection.
“The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person to person,” CDC said. “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.”
A cleaner disinfects a New York City subway train, May 4. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
An often-cited study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on metal and plastic for two to three days, with the detectable amount of the virus decreasing exponentially over time. Still, one of the scientists involved in the study told CNN that he doesn’t bother wiping down surfaces like groceries or takeout, and instead prioritizes washing his hands after handling such items.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also advised Americans that there’s little to fear from their food.
“We want to reassure consumers that there is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” the FDA says. “This particular coronavirus causes respiratory illness and is spread from person to person, unlike food-borne gastrointestinal, or GI viruses, such as norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food.”
But as the CDC also notes, we are still learning about how the virus spreads and the severity of illness it causes.
“If we tell people that the risk doesn’t exist here without the caveat that ‘but it could,’ we have a problem going back,” Kass says of evolving COVID-19 guidance. “People are very upset when we’re wrong. We originally said, ‘We’re not really sure if you should wear masks,’ and then we started to say, ‘It’s probably a good idea,’ and now we’re saying, ‘Mask wearing should basically be mandatory.’”
“The confusion is people asking for absolutes,” Kass explains. “People are trying to get guarantees. We don’t have a lot of guarantees right now. It’s still a very new virus. We’re still figuring out what’s going on. We’re still trying to understand where the risks are and where they aren’t.”
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.