As information about staying safe from Covid-19 seems to change weekly, it’s no wonder that people have a lot of questions about how the illness spreads.
We talked with local infectious disease experts who answered some common questions about the coronavirus.
From wiping down packages to using public bathrooms to letting children play with others, here’s what they said.
What’s the latest theory on how the virus is transmitted?
While people worry about contaminated surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Covid-19 is mainly spread person-to-person when someone talks, sneezes, coughs, laughs, shouts, or sings.
“The main route of transmission is through respiratory droplets,” says Jonathan Maks, MD, regional medical officer for Amita Medical Health Group in Chicago.
That’s why the state of Illinois has mandated that people wear face masks and maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
How long does the virus survive on surfaces?
While it appears that surfaces are less of a threat for transmitting the illness, research is continuing.
“There are several factors that affect Covid’s heartiness,” Maks says. “The type of surface, sunlight, temperature, and humidity, for example.”
Depending on conditions, the virus that causes Covid-19 remains stable in aerosols and on surfaces for several hours to days, report researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers detected the virus in aerosols for up the three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to three days.
However, researchers say that indirect exposure from surfaces is not the main way the virus spreads, as the viral load is much lower from touching a surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
To avoid getting the virus from a surface, Maks urges abiding by a main tenet of Covid-19 prevention: Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use a 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer. He cautions that people should wash their hands after being out in public where they might touch surfaces that many others also may have touched.
Do I need to wipe down packaged foods from the grocery store?
Both Maks and Jennifer Grant, MD, infectious disease specialist at NorthShore University HealthSystem, agree that washing your hands is more important that wiping down packages.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Grant says. “The better practice is to wash your hands frequently, especially after handling packages and groceries.”
Grant’s advice is consistent with a recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration, which reports that there is no evidence that human or animal food or food packaging is associated with coronavirus transmission.
Do I need to worry about handling packages or mail?
As with food packaging, Maks says it appears that the risk of getting Covid-19 from handling packages or mail is low. However, he says that people who want to be on the safe side can take the precaution of putting their mail aside for a day before they open it.
He also recommends opening packages, emptying the contents, and then immediately disposing of the package.
Even more important, however, is to wash your hands with warm, soapy water or with hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol after you handle mail or packages or touch a mailbox or other common area that others may also touch.
“The more cautious people can use disposable gloves, but remove them right away,” Maks says. “Gloves are no substitute for washing your hands.”
Can I get the coronavirus from foods?
The CDC reports that there is currently no evidence that food spreads Covid-19. While bacteria can grow on food, a virus such as the one that causes Covid-19 needs a living host like a person or animal to multiply.
As a general health practice, the CDC recommends washing your hands after handling, preparing, and eating food and following standard food safety practices. It also notes that the virus has not been found in drinking water, and that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates water treatment plants to ensure that water is safe to drink.
When should I wear a mask outdoors?
It’s important to wear a face mask when you are unable to maintain appropriate distancing of at least 6 feet between other people. In fact, Illinois requires everyone over age 2 to wear a mask in public places when unable to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
If you’re in a park or someplace where you are really far from other people and always going to have at least 6 feet of distance, Grant says it’s okay to remove the mask. However, if you might be passing by others or potentially stop to talk, “I would err on the side of wearing the mask,” she says. “When in doubt, wear a mask.”
Even if you’re walking outside, you are still in a public place. “I think you should handle it like any other public space — wear a mask and keep a 6-foot distance,” Grant says.
Face masks help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and are essential to reduce spread of the virus.
Even a fabric mask can provide a lot of protection, according to a June 2020 study by the University of Illinois, which shows that one common household fabric — T-shirt material — effectively blocks 40% of droplets when used as a single layer. And two layers of T-shirt are even more effective, with 98% droplet-blocking efficiency. The study looked at 10 common household fabrics and compared them to those of a medical/dental-quality.
How should I handle public bathrooms?
It’s not always possible to rush home to use a bathroom when you’re out. If you have to use a public toilet, Maks recommends avoiding ones that are crowded.
“If at all possible, use touchless facilities, wash your hands before and after using the bathroom, and avoid crowded bathrooms,” he says.
He also recommends putting down the toilet seat when flushing if possible, because a recent study suggests the virus can be shed in feces of symptomatic individuals. Putting the toilet seat down may reduce airborne particles.
Is air travel safe?
“As long as you’re cautious and maintain the safety practices of wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, air travel should be safe,” Maks says.
Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others, the CDC says. If you travel, wash your hands often; avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth; keep 6 feet from others; and wear a face mask in the airport and on the plane. Remember to wash your hands before and after going through security screening.
Should I let my children play with other children who aren’t wearing masks?
Grant and Maks say parents need to use their best judgment on that question.
“In an ideal setting, you should have your kids wear masks and have them play with kids wearing masks, but depending on the age of the child, this may be hard to enforce,” Grant says.
“Things have opened up. Some families are trying to keep good social distancing practices but then interacting with other friends or neighbors that are doing the same. So they are expanding their circle of people they are interacting with but still trying to ensure these friends or neighbors are socially distancing,” she says. Letting your children play with other kids you know are following safe practices may be the best way to go.
A playdate is a good way for parents to teach kids about hygiene, including wearing masks and washing hands, Maks says.
“We have to teach our kids these safety practices and let them know they aren’t optional,” he says. He suggests bringing hand sanitizer and taking breaks to let kids wash their hands.
“I think you have to go on trust. It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect one another,” he says.