Catching COVID From Surfaces Risk 'Very Small,' Expert Says

Michael Martin
·3-min read

Early in the pandemic, every touchable surface was suspect. Could the coronavirus find its way into our homes through the mail? Should we be wiping down our groceries? If there's coronavirus on my cardboard Amazon package, will it die after 24 hours? Forty-eight?

But a new article in Wired says it's become apparent those fears are overblown, and there is "very little" chance of contracting COVID from surfaces. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

Can you catch COVID from surfaces?

This is a conclusion that's been forming among scientists for several months. In July, Rutgers microbiologist Emanuel Goldman published a commentary arguing that the risk of surface transmission had been "exaggerated."

Various researchers have found that the virus can live on certain surfaces for hours or days, but studies haven't found that's a major source of transmission, he said.

"In my opinion, the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze (within 1–2 h)," wrote Goldman in The Lancet, citing several studies. "I do not disagree with erring on the side of caution, but this can go to extremes not justified by the data."

CDC says surface transmission uncommon

In fact, early this month, the CDC updated its guidance on surface transmission to say that "spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that Covid-19 spread."

That's a message that may be breaking news to some. We all see stores, restaurants, gyms and public transportation services that continue to tout their "enhanced cleaning procedures," which Atlantic writer Derek Thompson dubbed "hygiene theater."

"There are bizarre policies that haven't changed or adapted," said Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist. "It's one thing for an individual to decide to stop bleaching their groceries. It's much more difficult to steer the ship of an institution as the science evolves, with different levels of decision-making and different levels of health literacy and risk tolerance."

The messaging is difficult because scientists don't yet know why the virus is less likely to be transmitted from touching surfaces (and then your face, mouth or eyes) versus inhaling it from respiratory droplets or aerosols that hang in the air.

Scientists have found the "live" virus on surfaces, but it seems to be less infectious than airborne virus. Light may cause the virus to degrade, Wired says, while saliva and mucus from coughs and sneezes may enhance airborne transmissibility. Like so many things about COVID-19, it's just not clear yet.

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Do this instead to stay healthy

In the meantime, some people have become obsessive about cleaning surfaces because it lends them something that's severely lacking in the pandemic: A sense of control and security. "There's such a high level of tension in our lives and decision-making right now. We all need to feel some ease," said Marcus."For me, the question is, where are the low-risk areas where we can ease off the gas now that we know more about how transmission happens—which is overwhelmingly from being together in indoor environments? It's not from a book that somebody sneezed on and brought to the library a week ago."

For now, the best advice remains: Wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and avoid gatherings. That's more likely to protect you from COVID-19 than wiping down your Domino's box.

In addition to mask-wearing, frequent handwashing and avoiding crowds, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, practice social distancing, only run essential errands, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.