When It Comes To Germs, Is There Such A Thing As Going Overboard Right Now?

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
People in flu masks running from COVID-19
Malte Mueller/Getty

While I am far from a germaphobe, I’ll admit that the coronavirus pandemic is doing its best to turn me into one. A former proponent of the “five-second rule,” I’ll admit that I’ve become a little paranoid lately. It’s hard to not be when it feels like there’s a hidden predator lurking in the air. Just going for a walk feels rebellious and slightly dangerous sometimes, like we’re swimming in contaminated air and every breath is full of potential contagion.

But that’s the fear and anxiety talking. I know this isn’t true. And if ever there was a time to separate fact from fear, it is now.

So let’s start with the facts. While new information about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is learned every day, here’s what we know so far. The CDC confirmed that the virus is spread “mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” though there is some research indicating that it can also be spread through talking, singing, and breathing.

While the virus can remain on surfaces for hours or a couple of days, transmission via surfaces is considered low risk. The same is true when it comes to deliveries, take-out food, and grocery shopping — packages and containers are relatively low risk. Close contact with people carries the largest risk of transmission.

According to Don Schaffner, a food science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, information and guidance is constantly changing but that the virus doesn’t like being outside the body. After a couple of days, the virus would be undetectable on a hypothetical apple that someone with COVID-19 sneezed on, he told USA Today.

“Time is really on your side here,” Dr. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told NPR. “After 24 hours, the vast majority of virus is no longer infectious.” After 72 hours, research has found the virus in trace amounts or undetectable on most surfaces.

It’s important to take precautions – social distancing, staying home, forgoing the non-essentials, wearing a mask in public, not touching your face, etc. – but it is possible to go too far. And in some cases, our “precautions” can be downright dangerous: going over the top to clean our produce, for starters.

“If the produce is contaminated by a sick person and you touch it and then touch your face, you can become infected,” Felicia Goulet-Miller, an instructor of microbiology at Florida Gulf Coast University, told USA Today. But handling or consuming food is unlikely to result in transmission, since you’d need to touch the exact spot where the virus is and then touch your face (mouth, eyes, nose in particular) before washing your hands.

Experts agree: do not clean produce with disinfecting wipes, alcohol, or bleach. Not only is this unnecessary, but it can actually be harmful. Even soap can be harmful if you ingest too much of it.

What you should do: run all produce under water (like you should have been doing pre-pandemic) without soap. Although there is a video making the rounds that shows how to disinfect produce, NPR spoke with a number of experts, all of whom confirmed that disinfecting and hand-washing everything you bring home from the store is unnecessary, and none of them are doing this with their own food.

Another unnecessary and potentially dangerous “precaution” is using gloves. “I’ve seen a lot of people wearing gloves out in public, and they just kind of wear them all day and do a lot of normal activities, like talk on their phone, potentially eat, potentially handle food that they’re going to eat later with those gloves on,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told NPR. “And that’s not great practice.”

Instead of using gloves, avoid touching your face while shopping and immediately sanitize your hands once you leave the store. When you get home, you can wash your hands again after putting the groceries away.

You can also probably skip changing into new clothes or showering after a trip to the grocery. “I personally don’t like to do a full de-con [de-contamination] when I get home from the store,” Rasmussen said. “I wash my hands. I’m not routinely putting my face and mouth all over my clothing … people with small children might consider otherwise, since kids — especially little kids — are maybe not so concerned about where they put their mouths or their hands.”

Bottom line: the biggest risk associated with groceries and food purchases isn’t the packaging or the food itself, but the interactions with people involved in the purchase process.

“While it is possible to contract the virus [from contaminated surfaces], the majority of transmission is probably going to be from respiratory droplets, which you’re exposed to when you’re around other people,” Rasmussen said.

Since being inside the store is considered the most dangerous part of the process, it’s best to get in and out as quickly as possible. Have a list, preferably organized by location in the store so you aren’t doing a lot of backtracking.

According to NPR, Don Schaffner “advises that you look for a grocery store that limits the number of shoppers who are allowed to go in at one time.” Of course, this may lead to lines outside the store, but it’s easier to maintain that critical six feet of space for social distancing.

Other helpful tips from the experts include:

– Wear a mask or face covering. In fact, the CDC now recommends that everyone wear a face covering in public (some states literally require them), and NPR reports that some stores are now requiring shoppers to wear face coverings. Given reports that 25 to 50% of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and data that the virus is spread via air droplets, the purpose of the face coverings isn’t to protect you, but rather to protect others from you in case you are contagious without knowing it.

– Go solo and shop for others if you can. Since the goal is minimize the number of people in the store at any one time, have one person shop for your entire family. You could also consider sharing the shopping duties with neighbor to further minimize the number of people who are making trips to the store.

Sanitizer is your friend. Use it liberally on your cart and your hands both before and after shopping.

– Stay off your phone. Rasmussen told NPR that folks should avoid using their cell phone when shopping since a “phone is a great way to get your hands right up next to your face.”

– Give cashiers space or use self-checkout. Not only does this achieve the goal of avoiding people as much as possible, but it also protects the cashiers, who are putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure that we have the food we need.

– Order online. You can pay ahead of time and they will leave your groceries outside your door. But tip generously. These folks are braving the shopping store so you don’t have to.

Remember, friends: fact over fear. Stay safe, stay home, save lives.

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