It can be overwhelming to sort through sometimes conflicting and often confusing information about cleaning and disinfecting as it relates to the spread of the coronavirus. Should you disinfect your groceries? The mail? What about packages and delivery items? We have answers.
First, some basics: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus “is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.” It cites two primary forms of transmission: “Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) [and] through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
This is why experts recommend social distancing, hand washing, and regularly sanitizing high-touch areas as the best measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. My previous advice stands: Keep it simple and be diligent.
But “high-touch areas,” what are those? Things and places we touch frequently. They include:
- Doorknobs and handles
- Handles on furniture and appliances
- Tables, desks, and hard-backed chairs
- Light switches
- Faucets and sinks
- Toilet flusher
- Toiletries and makeup
- Hand and dish towels
- Handbags, tote bags, laptop bags, etc
- Steering wheels
It is unreasonable to expect everyone to fully disinfect their home and car each day — but there is a reasonable amount of disinfecting one can do and, therefore, experts recommend that you focus your efforts on high-touch areas. Why? High-touch areas pose a higher risk of transmission since they’re the ones that you’re most likely to have contact with immediately before touching your face, or that you’re likely to touch after you’ve coughed or sneezed but before you’re able to wash your hands.
High-touch areas should be cleaned and disinfected regularly with a product appropriate for the material or surface type that is included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.
With that said, however, it’s understandable that there is still confusion and fear around the handling of items from outside the home, like groceries, mail, and delivery items. Here’s what you should know.
When it comes to concerns about coronavirus transmission via food and food packaging, the news is good: It is a low risk. In fact, the biggest grocery-related risk is contact with others and with high-touch areas like shopping carts and basket handles, so it is important to practice appropriate social distancing while in the grocery store, to avoid touching your face while shopping, and to wash your hands thoroughly when you return home from the market.
The US Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines on food safety and coronavirus do not include the disinfecting of perishable and non-perishable grocery items. In a statement on March 24, Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said, “There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.” (The FDA notes that “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 mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”)
Don Schaffner, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and host of the podcasts Food Safety Talk and Risky or Not?, echoed the FDA’s recommendations regarding food handling. “I am not recommending disinfecting your groceries. This seems like being overly cautious. We don’t know of any cases of Covid-19 transmitted by food, nor of any cases transmitted by food packaging.”
Schaffner does, however, recommend washing your hands after returning from the grocery store, after putting groceries away, and before eating.
Perishables do not need to be disinfected prior to use, according to Schaffner, but fresh produce should always be washed in water. “I absolutely do not recommend soap. Soap is designed for use on dishes or hands. Accidentally ingesting soap can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.”
He recommends focusing on cleaning and sanitizing hands, and cautions against using products like bleach or Lysol on food: “Lysol is designed for surfaces and not food, so if you sprayed it on a tomato or cucumber it might be toxic and make the food taste terrible. Bleach can damage your hands, mouth, carpets, etc., so I worry about consequences from using it to manage a negligible risk.”
Cleaning reusable grocery bags
Reusable grocery bags, which are considered high-touch items, should always be cleaned regularly at least once a week, or after every use, to ensure they remain free of bacteria that cause food-borne illness. Nylon and cotton grocery totes can be machine-washed in cold water and air-dried; bags that cannot be machine washed can be wiped clean with an antibacterial wipe or all-purpose spray and a paper towel. Refer to the EPA’s list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 to determine if a cleaning agent meets the EPA’s criteria for use against the coronavirus.
Food delivery and takeout
The most impactful precaution you can take when ordering food delivery, including grocery and liquor deliveries, is to avoid direct contact with couriers. Where possible, choose services that offer contactless delivery; many delivery apps have contactless delivery options built in that also allow you to tip delivery workers. (Please tip delivery workers well! While cash is usually the best way to tip service workers, card or touch-free tipping might make more sense for now.) When placing orders by telephone, you can request that the delivery be left on the steps, porch, or driveway outside your home or in the lobby of multi-unit buildings. Either include a tip when you’re paying by phone or leave an envelope with cash and give instructions on where to retrieve it — placing the envelope under a doormat is a good option.
If you’re picking up your takeout at a restaurant, practice appropriate social distancing with restaurant personnel and other customers. Although the risk of transmission from payment systems is believed to be significantly lower than from people, if possible use touch-free payment systems rather than cash or credit cards to avoid cross-contamination.
While the risk of transmitting the coronavirus via packaging like paper bags, plastic bags, or cardboard boxes is low, Schaffner said, “The only thing that I am recommending is that people wash and/or sanitize their hands after handling delivery bags or containers if they are concerned about coronavirus.” If you are concerned about contamination on takeout bags or containers, there are some steps you can take to mitigate the risk and assuage your fears:
- Place delivery bags and containers in the sink rather than on table- or countertops.
- Transfer food from takeout containers to a plate.
- Discard all delivery bags, boxes, and takeout containers in the trash or recycling.
- Wash your hands before eating.
- Leftovers should be put in your own food storage containers rather than in takeout containers.
- Clean and sanitize the sink after your meal using a product from the EPA’s list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.
Mail and packages
Just as with food packaging and delivery items, mail and packages pose a low risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Also like food packaging and delivery items, you should avoid contact with the person delivering.
In a statement provided to Vox, Dave Partenheimer, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service (USPS), said, “The CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the Surgeon General, have indicated that there is currently no evidence that Covid-19 is being spread through the mail.”
According to the WHO, “the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and been exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.” The CDC is in alignment with the WHO in stating that the transmission risk via mail and packages is low, “in general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures. Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of Covid-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of Covid-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.”
Given that, there is no need to disinfect mail or packages; however, you should wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.
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