Yes, COVID-19 Can Live On Surfaces: Why You Should Still Wipe Down Packages & Plastic

Recent news alerts suggest you don’t have to wipe down groceries, etc. Here’s why you still should.

By Michael Bohl, MD, MPH
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Kitchen Cleaning Tips to Combat Coronavirus (1:18)

May 27, 2020 — 3 p.m. EST

If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, you may have come across the following headline (or something like it): Coronavirus Does Not Spread Easily on Surfaces. At first glance, this sounds like great news — especially if you’ve been wearing gloves, wiping down groceries, and being careful about everything you touch in public. However, before you celebrate too much, there’s something important to point out: This is not actually new news. Instead, all of the recent headlines seem to be a function of the CDC reformatting its website.

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Let me explain: Since the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), one of the first questions people began asking was how the disease spreads. Early on, we figured out that the main way the virus spreads is from person-to-person through respiratory droplets (small particles that get expelled when a person coughs, sneezes, or breathes heavily). However, something that was less understood right away was whether the virus can live on surfaces for any significant amount of time.

In mid-March, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine answered that question. Researchers found that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) can live on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for 48–72 hours. Because of this news, many people started adopting new behaviors, such as wiping down the outside of packages or letting groceries sit in a different room for two days before touching them.

It turns out, our understanding of SARS-CoV-2’s survivability on surfaces has not really changed since mid-March. We still know that the virus can live on certain materials for up to three days, and it’s still possible to get infected by touching these contaminated surfaces.

What did happen, was that the CDC reformatted its website. As part of this reformat, information about SARS-CoV-2 and surfaces was placed under a new subheading. This caused news organizations to think there was new information to report and, subsequently, the new headlines.

However, as the New York Times points out, the CDC’s overall messaging about how the virus spreads has stayed relatively consistent. Currently, the CDC states the following: “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 own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.”

So, what does this mean for you? Unfortunately, it’s not time to change your behavior yet. Touching contaminated objects can make you sick — it’s just less common than getting the disease directly from another person. If there are certain things you’ve been doing to avoid getting COVID-19 — such as wiping down your groceries and frequently using hand sanitizer — you should continue doing them for now.

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Article written by Michael Bohl, MD, MPH