As the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the country, you're probably — like most Americans — hunkered down in your home. Since even going to the grocery store these days requires donning a mask, it may seem like a no-brainer to order essentials online as much as possible.
But a study published March 2020 in the The New England Journal of Medicine may have you second-guessing yourself when it comes to having groceries or packages delivered to your house. The researchers found that the virus that causes COVID-19 may live for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
But the risk of infection is still very low, reassures Joseph Allen, MPH, D.Sc, a certified industrial hygienist and assistant professor of exposure and assessment science at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"While it's true that the virus can be detected on some surfaces for hours or even days, the reality is these levels drop off very quickly," Allen explains.
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The study found that the virus's half-life on stainless steel was 5.6 hours and 6.8 hours on plastic (half-life is how long it takes the viral concentration to decrease by half, then half of that half, and so on until it's gone, says Allen.)
So even if the person who packaged your item or one of the carriers along its route were infected, there probably wouldn't be very much, if any, virus left by the time it lands on your front doorstep, he says.
You also don't need to avoid ordering packages that come from a company or seller in areas hard-hit by the virus, like Italy or China. Since there's such a long transport time, it's highly unlikely that there will be any virus left by the time your delivery gets to you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which adds that there's absolutely zero evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 via imported goods.
All that doesn't mean it's impossible for you to get infected by a delivery.
"In the very worst-case scenario, a sick driver transports your package to your house and sneezes directly on it before dropping it off for you," Allen says.
While that's very unlikely, it is reasonable to take some sensible precautions, says Seema Sarin, MD, an internal medicine physician at EHE Health in Great Falls, Virginia. Here, three to follow:
1. Leave Cardboard Packages and Mail Outside for 24 Hours
As long as it doesn't contain anything perishable, like milk or produce, you can leave it either in your garage or right outside your front door, Dr. Sarin says. That way, you'll give any viral matter ample time to die off before you come into contact with it.
Need to bring it indoors sooner? You could open the package outside, put the packaging in the recycling bin and immediately go inside to wash your hands, advises Allen. Then return outside to bring the actual item or items indoors.
2. Be Strategic With Groceries
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) actually doesn't recommend disinfecting grocery items, since there's currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging been associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
But if you're concerned, Allen suggests putting away your groceries, washing your hands thoroughly and then waiting a few hours to use anything you just purchased.
"By then, any virus still lingering on a container will be significantly reduced," he explains.
If you want to use something immediately, you can always wipe the package down with an alcohol-based disinfectant.
You should, of course, rinse off fresh produce such as fruits and veggies before putting them away. But they absolutely don't need to be disinfected and should be washed simply with water, not soap and water.
"If you use soap, it can linger on the item and cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea," Dr. Sarin says.
Ditto for using disinfectants on food: "Bleach can damage your skin, so I shudder to think what it could do to your mouth," Dr. Sarin adds.
3. Avoid Direct Contact With Workers Whenever Possible
The CDC's social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet from other people apply to delivery drivers and postal workers, too. So whenever possible, avoid face-to-face delivery encounters.
Fortunately, companies like UPS are offering services like the free UPS My Choice, which allows you to provide specific delivery instructions like where to leave deliveries, where to redirect them and delivery notifications.
And remember, you're still much safer getting packages and groceries delivered than heading out to buy them in person. The CDC still says that the main way the virus spreads is from person to person, through infected respiratory droplets that land in your mouth or nose. Since COVID-19 can be spread by people not showing symptoms, it just makes sense to limit your outings as much as possible.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- The New England Journal of Medicine: "Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Coronavirus Frequently Asked Questions"
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Food Safety and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How COVID-19 Spreads"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation"