March 27, 2020 -- We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it feels like every interaction we have could lead to some way to get the coronavirus. Groceries, deliveries, takeout food -- can we bring them into our homes safely?
If you followed every bit of advice out there, you’d only leave your home encased in plastic wrap, and you’d swab down everything you touch with bleach several times a day. We consulted experts to find out what will really make a difference.
The first thing to understand: Because COVID-19 is so new, no conclusive research exists about what works. There is no absolute truth here. Joseph Vinetz, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Yale University, believes we should do the best we can and not get too caught up in taking every possible precaution.
“I haven’t seen one iota of evidence that grocery shopping, newspapers, or packages have ever introduced an infection to somebody. It might happen, it could, but there are so many objectionable messages -- obsessiveness, socioeconomic class,” he says. “There’s nothing perfect in this world, and to try to get to that level of sanitary pristineness is counterproductive.”
Vinetz advises staying home as much as possible. He offers a few basic precautions for when you must go out:
- Wash your hands a lot.
- Use sanitizer frequently while you’re out (if you can).
- Stay 6-8 feet away from other people.
- Spray or wipe down the outside of reusable bags.
“Any time you’re coming into contact with a place that many people have touched, you should be careful,” he says.
His grown son disagrees, choosing to follow a stricter regimen. And that’s OK, Vinetz says. “I’m sympathetic to everyone who’s worrying about this invisible miasma that’s threatening all of us. All I can say is, use your common sense, don’t think too hard, and try to enjoy your time at home. This too shall pass.”
Sanitizing Your Home
- Unpacking groceries: You don’t need to follow all the intricate practices shown in a popular YouTube video from a family doctor that’s had more than 12 million views. In the Washington Post, Joseph G. Allen, an assistant professor of exposure and assessment science at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, advises hand washing when you get home and again after putting groceries away, but nothing more. The half-life of the virus on most surfaces -- the time it takes to decrease by half, then half again -- is relatively short, he explained. Unless you’re using items right away, the virus will be gone by the time you take it out of the cupboard. If you do need something immediately and want to take the extra step, you can wipe down the package with a disinfectant.
- Cleaning during quarantine: If someone in your home is sick, clean surfaces that are touched frequently every day, like doorknobs, light switches, and tables. Use a household cleaning product or wipe, or a solution of 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. If you’re living under a “stay at home” order, with nobody coming and going, you can relax a little. In that situation, “Regular cleaning is fine,” Vinetz says. Using wipes? Read the package instructions carefully, and don’t expect to clean the whole room with a single wipe. Research has shown that they become less effective when cleaning larger areas.
- Letting in the repair technician: Plumbing emergencies happen, even when you’re quarantined. If a technician has to enter your home, he or she should be taking precautions. “He’s going from home to home, with exposure to multiple public surfaces,” Vinetz says. “That’s different than the delivery man bringing you food without coming inside.” While the technician is in your home, do your best to maintain social distancing. Clean all surfaces when the work is done. And open a window, Vinetz suggests. “If you get a breeze, it can get infectious particles out of the air.”
Handling Food Safely
- Washing produce: You do not need to wash each individual apple with soapy water for 20 seconds. In fact, the FDA advises against using soap at all. Even before the coronavirus, you should’ve been rinsing all your produce under running water -- that’ll do the trick. For firm produce, you can also use a clean vegetable brush.
- Freezing vs. heating: Yes, coronavirus can probably survive in your freezer. If you’re nervous about that pizza, either wipe down the box before putting it in, or transfer the pizza to a different container. Heat, on the other hand, will kill it, so cook your food to at least 160 F if you’re concerned. But there’s no evidence that COVID-19 will spread through food, so if that’s impractical, don’t sweat it.
- Food delivery: If you want to order in, go right ahead. Remember, it’s very unlikely you’ll get COVID-19 by eating something. As for the packaging, hand washing comes in again: Wash your hands, then transfer the food to your own dishes. Discard the container and wash your hands again. Then enjoy a nice meal you didn’t have to cook. As Allen wrote in the Washington Post, “If you take basic precautions, including washing your hands frequently, the danger from accepting a package from a delivery driver or from takeout from a local restaurant or from buying groceries is de minimis. That’s a scientific way of saying, ‘The risks are small, and manageable.’”
- Grocery shopping: Buy them online and have them delivered, if possible. Person-to-person transmission is the common way to get COVID-19, and having your groceries delivered exposes you to fewer people. (Remember, you don’t need to stress about the virus on the groceries themselves.) But if you must go out, Donald Schaffner, PhD, a food science specialist and professor at Rutgers, devoted a tweet thread to grocery shopping safely. He says to use whatever sanitizer is available for your cart, shop from a list so you can move quickly, do your best to practice social distancing within the store, use hand sanitizer when you leave the store (if you have some), and clean your hands again when you get home.
- Social distancing outside: Let’s say you’re walking the recommended 6 feet behind someone and they cough. Are you going to stroll through a mist of coronavirus? While nobody can definitely say yes or no at this point, all signs point to no. Respiratory droplets that come out when someone coughs are heavy enough that gravity pulls them down within seconds.
- When you come back from outside: You may have heard that to be safe you should undress in the garage, spray the bottom of your shoes, or take a shower immediately. “If you’re an ER doctor, it’s not a bad idea,” Vinetz says. Otherwise, not so much. All you really need to do is -- you guessed it -- wash your hands.
- Wearing disposable gloves to go out: “The virus doesn’t infect people through the skin,” Vinetz says. “Gloves give people a false sense of security. Maybe the gloves remind you not to touch your face, but it’s using a scarce resource and it’s not merited.” And you probably don’t need a mask, either.
- Bringing in the mail: Think of letters as small, slender packages. They don’t pose much risk.
- Elevators: Only take the elevator if there’s nobody else in it, Vinetz says. Unless it’s an extremely large elevator, it’s virtually impossible to practice social distancing. Don’t use your finger to press the buttons. Use an object, like a pen. And if it’s feasible, take the stairs.
- Petting strange dogs: “You shouldn’t pet them because they might bite you,” says Vinetz, not because they might make you sick. “All animals have their own coronaviruses, but they’re not infectious for people. You’ll hear an occasional anecdote that a dog may have passed the virus, but it’s not worth giving even a passing thought to.” It’s always good practice to wash your hands after petting an animal, so continue to do that.