Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Thursday, April 16, 2020


Good information about catching COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces seems hard to find. Some news reports say that the virus remains on surfaces for a few days at most, while some seem to say it can remain for a couple of weeks. Some sources say to wear gloves everywhere you go, and some say wearing gloves is worse than touching things with bare hands.
There are a few reasons we see so much conflicting information. For one, COVID-19 is a brand new virus, and researchers’ understanding of it is improving every day. For another, news outlets tend to be really bad at vetting sources for their science reporting, such that they’ll give the same weight to a study with a sample size of 4 conducted by the Clown College of Cooterville as they do to a huge study by the CDC.
Luckily, my recent liberation from the world of the gainfully employed gives me plenty of time to dig through the science behind the headlines and separate the concrete from the riffraff. If you don’t have time to read this whole story, here’s a summary: you most probably can’t get COVID-19 from food. You can get it from surfaces, but you’re far more likely to get it by failing to follow social distancing guidelines. COVID-19 remains on surfaces for 1-5 days depending on the surface, but statistically, you aren’t nearly as likely to get COVID from your groceries, say, as you are to get it from your fellow grocery shoppers. Note that all this is true as of the middle of April 2020, but our understanding grows every day.     
*Exceptions include stainless steel, on which the virus remains active for 48 hours, and copper, on which the virus remains active for only 4 hours.

But hang on. There was definitely a news story about the CDC finding COVID-19 virus on a cruise ship 2 weeks after the last passengers were off, wasn’t there? Yes, CNBC did run a story with the headline, “CDC says coronavirus survived in Princess cruise ship cabins for up to 17 days after passengers left.” But the word “survived” is misleading here. What the CDC found was viral RNA, evidence that the disease had been there, but they didn’t find any live, infectious virus. 
Now let’s talk about what all that means for groceries and deliveries. The CDC, the WHO, the NIH, and infectious disease specialists everywhere say that the risk of getting COVID-19 from your Cap’n Crunch is minimal, and you should worry way more about person-to-person spread. They’re right, of course. All the experts say to get your groceries delivered when you can, and when you can’t, treat the grocery store like a game of Operation. Where the pieces move. And you don’t know whether you’ve successfully removed the funny bone for two weeks. They say you should touch only the stuff you plan to buy (that includes your face), stand as far back from the cashiers as you can, and use touchless payment methods if you’re able. And of course, wash your hands 100 times a day while singing the entire Beatles back catalogue. 
They’re right, of course. Especially since, as far as they know so far, somebody’s got to cough or sneeze right on your summer sausage to leave COVID cooties on it. But I personally do prefer to clean everything that comes into my house. If you do too, here’s the dirt. You don’t need to bust out the bleach or the flamethrower to get rid of Miss ‘Rona, you don’t even need to break into your precious supply of anti-bacterial wipes. Any old soap will do. Soap contains compounds called amphiphiles that weasel their way in between the lipids in the virus membrane, which causes the membrane to break up, which turns the virus into a harmless jumble of molecules. Wipe items down with a soapy rag then a clean wet rag, and they’re good to go. You should do the same with the counter once you’ve got all the groceries put away.
Experts say produce can just be washed like normal, no soap needed. Remember, the plague wants to feast on you, not your food. Stuff in cardboard can just be dumped straight into reusable storage containers – or just left alone for a day. Clean up your fridge handles and cupboard knobs just to be safe and then, you guessed it, wash your hands. 
In my house, when we get food delivered, we do transfer it to our own plates, use our own silverware, and wash our hands after we’ve disposed of all the bags and packaging that came with our food. I give packages and mail a quick spritz with Lysol before I touch them, which the experts would probably tell me is over-the-top, but I certainly don’t have anything better to do. 
So the long and the short of it is that science says stay home. When you can’t stay home, stay away from everyone. When you get home, you can give your wares a wipe-down, but you’ll probably be fine if you don’t.

  • “Coronavirus Resource Center” Harvard Health Publishing 04/16/2020
  • “How COVID-19 Spreads” 04/12/2020
  • Desai, Angel N. MD, MPH1; Aronoff, David M. MD. “Food Safety and COVID-19” Journal of the American Medical Association 04/09/2020
  • Moriarty, Leah. “Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships — Worldwide, February–March 2020” Centers for Disease Control Website 03/27/2020
  • Putterman, Samantha. “There’s no evidence COVID-19 can survive on surfaces up to 17 days.” 03/26/2020 
  • Thordarson, Pall. “The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus” 03/12/2020
  • van Doremalen, Neeltje, Ph.D., et al. “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1” New England Journal of Medicine. 04/16/2020
  • WHO team “Q & A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19)” World Health Organization website 04/08/2020

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