You can stop wiping down your groceries.
And, as gyms and restaurants reopen across Toronto and other parts of Canada, you probably don’t need to worry too much about catching COVID-19 by touching a treadmill or a menu.
While it is technically possible to catch the novel coronavirus by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth or nose, scientists increasingly agree that it’s pretty unlikely, outside of specific environments.
“I never say zero, and I never say 100,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga. “But it’s extremely low risk.”
“It is a mode of transmission, but maybe not as important as we previously thought,” said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control for the University Health Network in Toronto.
Early on in the pandemic, Hota said, when we were still learning about how the virus is transmitted, early research suggested that an infected person could spread a lot of virus around their immediate environment.
Researchers didn’t know how infectious those bits of virus actually were, but the fact that they existed made everyone react with caution, she said, stepping up disinfection and regular cleaning. “We wanted to do everything possible,” she said.
An early piece of research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that the virus was detectable on some surfaces for days, added to people’s concern, Chakrabarti said.
“That kind of scared everybody at first,” he said. “But then as things started to get more clear, you realized that yeah, you can find virus but that doesn’t mean that it can infect you.”
And in the months since, there have been relatively few recorded cases of people catching the virus from a surface, mostly in an infected patient’s hospital room, he said. Although, Hota said, it can sometimes be really hard to tell exactly how someone caught the disease.
These studies, largely done in labs, don’t always translate well to real life, Hota said.
“In these studies, the amounts of virus that they have planted into the surface is so far above what you typically get from a respiratory droplet, from a human being,” she said. “And that’s important because yes, you’re going to have a higher chance of isolating viable virus from a high load that’s been planted on a surface over time versus what’s actually happening in real life.”
The amount of virus that is likely to be left by a person, in real life, probably isn’t going to last for days, she said.
“It’s still an important consideration because you might still touch that surface in that hour or two after it’s gotten contaminated and then get sick,” but it’s much less of an issue than researchers initially thought, she said.
Hota’s criticism is echoed in a letter to the Lancet medical journal, commenting on recent surface studies, which also pointed out that they focused on conditions that are unlikely in real life.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also note that while it’s possible that you could catch the virus by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes, it’s “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
So when it comes to your day-to-day life, Hota says it’s still important to regularly clean shared surfaces that lots of people will touch within a short period, like elevator buttons or hospital waiting rooms.
But, she says it’s very unlikely that you need to wipe down your new package of toilet paper from Walmart, over fear that someone may have sneezed on it a day before.
“It’s a wimpy virus,” she said, and it doesn’t take any kind of special measures or cleaning products to kill it.
You can also only clean so much or so often, she said. It’s impractical to wipe an elevator after every passenger, for example. So, simply washing your hands frequently can help, as the virus would need to transfer from your hands to your mouth anyway.
Chakrabarti agrees. “The best thing to do if you’re out somewhere and you’ve handled something is, just wash your hands.”
When it comes to shared items like gym equipment, he thinks it’s far more likely that you would catch the virus from being in a crowded indoor space than from touching a barbell. “In the gym, it’s much more important having people spaced out.”
The situation where the virus transmits best is “in an indoor space, close contact, for a prolonged period of time,” he said.
“So anything you can do to mitigate those three things are going to help. Of course, that includes physical distancing, hand hygiene and masks indoors when you are when you can’t physically distance.”
Chakrabarti says he’s seen cases of people with allergic reactions to cleaning products after using them over-zealously in their homes. He says he doesn’t take any special measures with his groceries or other items at home himself.
“Nothing is a perfect measure to protect us all,” Hota said. “And that’s why it’s important to layer these things upon each other.”
Washing your hands can protect you from a poorly cleaned surface, and having everyone wear masks can protect in situations where you can’t physically distance, she said. Having multiple, complementary protections can help.
“I think that there maybe has been an overemphasis on cleaning and disinfecting, and it kind of makes us feel more secure – there is a bit of a psychological component to that.
“But it’s not the be-all and end-all. And it’s probably less important than making sure that we have people masked and distancing and things like that.”
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