COVID-19: Can You Get Coronavirus From Newspapers & Groceries?

Once upon a time, grocery shopping was a comforting annoyance; but as the pandemic is progressing, so is our overthinking of the daily mundanities.

Should I wear surgical gloves to flip the newspaper? Will touching the wrong onion give me coronavirus? Wonder how many have handled this milk packet before? What if someone coughed on it? Why does that person have to stand so close?

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A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine, saying that the coronavirus can live on cardboard for 24 hours, plastic and steel for 48 to 72 hours, has people going berserk. Shopping for essentials is the only breather from cabin fever in this lockdown (also, you got to feed yourself, right); but how do you do that without feeling dangerous or exposed to the virus?

The risk is real but very little. Allow me to explain.

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Milk, Newspapers, Groceries - Coronavirus-Proofing Your Essentials

Imagine this scenario:

Your vegetable vendor is a little sick (they would probably rest at home if they were totally under the weather), coughs and sneezes all over the thela and leaves some respiratory droplets on a bunch of tomatoes. You pick up exactly the same batch of tomatoes, head home and decide to toss them in a salad and eat without washing the veggies or your hands. (Seriously? Soap-up, people!)

First up, note the time lag between the sabzi-wala sneezing all over your produce and you eating the salad?

Every second the virus is out of a human body and moving in the environment, its concentration is dropping, and integrity is degrading. Basically, time kills the virus.

In fact, the NEJM study also says that the half-life of the virus on stainless steel and plastic is around 5.6 and 6.8 hours. Half-life is the scientific term for how long it takes for the amount or the concentration of virus to lessen by half, then half of that and so on till it’s gone.

Secondly, the study found no evidence that the amount of virus on the surfaces is enough to infect a human being.

Dr Om Srivastava, Director, Infectious Diseases, Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai,“Right now, there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support the claim that coronavirus load on surfaces is enough to infect a human being. Yes, in laboratory settings the virus has been found to sustain on cardboard, plastics and metal for several hours to days. But how much of the virus load actually remains in real world situations to infect an individual is unknown.”

Exactly our point- a finding made in laboratory settings, does not always mimic the same results in real-life situations because then you take variables like heat, UV light and humidity into account. It’s not known how these factors affect the life of the virus in the environment.

According to Dr Rajiv Dang, Senior Director, Head of Department, Internal Medicine, Max Hospital, Gurgaon,

Dr Rajiv DangThe actual risk of getting infection from contaminated objects is extremely low and you can minimise that with good hand hygiene, avoid touching your eyes, ears, mouth and nose, wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Till now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not found a single incident of coronavirus transmission happening through contaminated surfaces or food. They maintain that the leading way this infection spreads is via person-to-person contact. So, your newspaper and vegetables aren’t really a threat; coughing humans, on the other hand, are harder to escape. That’s pretty much what the US FDA is saying as well.

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How To Be Sanitary Yet Sane While Shopping In A Pandemic

Allow me to explain a relevant medical theory – the sufficient-component cause model of diseases. Cutting through the jargon is a rather simple concept - several contributing factors have to be webbed together and present at the same time for an infection to spread.

In this scenario, the COVID19 positive veggie guy has to sneeze on his cart, you need to touch the exact same tomatoes where the droplets fall, you don’t wash your hands or the groceries before eating, and you touch the dirty hands on your mouth and get infected. It’s a remote possibility that all these necessary components align together for the infection to spread. At any point, if you washed your hands, rinsed the groceries thoroughly, or just didn’t touch your mouths, ears, nose with the infected hands, the virus on vegetables, newspapers or groceries alone would not be sufficient to cause the illness.

So you see, it’s very much possible to break the chain. Here’s how:

  • Minimise stepping out. And when you have to, go alone and don’t tag along the kids, no matter how bored they are at home. Kids are germ factories, they love to touch things and put them in their mouth.
  • Time to revive the paper list so you don’t loiter around in the store.
  • When you’re outside, avoid touching your phone as much as you can – phones are grime factories.
  • Your main priority is to maintain distance from people and wear surgical mask if you can.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after you touch anything outside and before you eat. Keep your hands away from your orifices at all costs. We can’t emphasise this enough. It’s seriously your best armour in a pandemic.
  • At least once in a day, disinfect your wallet, hand bag, phones, door knobs, keys, steering wheel - the things you typically touch a lot in a day.
  • Leave your delivery parcels, groceries and other non-perishables in the sun for a few hours before you take it inside the home.
  • No need to disinfect the milk packets, unless you put the milk packets in your mouth, which is gross! It’s really harmful if the disinfectant mixes with the milk in trace amounts also. So just pour the milk straight in a clean vessel and trash the packet carefully. Same goes for food take-outs.
  • Rinse your veggies and fruits thoroughly, like you always do. No need to douse them in soap or disinfectant, that goop is meant for hands and surfaces, if it gets absorbed in your produce, it will make you sick. Now is not the time to get a food-infection.
  • I use my foot to push open doors and elbows to press the elevator buttons. I think it’s the pandemic habit I’m always going to carry.

Also Read: COVID-19 Can Remain Stable On Surfaces For Hours To Days: Research

It’s good to be cautious in a pandemic. Create visible reminders of these things for the family - sticky note the facts or just etch a temporary tattoo. It’s a health crisis, so always wiser to take too many precautions than too few. Do what you must but PLEASE. DON’T. TOUCH. YOUR FACE!

Disclaimer: There is a lot which is unknown about this virus. Recommendations for COVID19 are updated as per new findings. Monitor the Union Health Ministry’s website for any change in guidelines in the future.

(Nikita Mishra is an independent journalist with more than ten years of experience in medical reporting. Currently she lives and works out of Hong Kong and when not weaving words, she can be found obsessing over coffee, cakes and her adorable kids.)

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