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After almost two months of lockdown, the government has decided to reopen the economy, but in a phased manner. The first phase, which proposes to reopen malls, restaurants, hotels and religious places, has given rise to fears of catching the coronavirus from contaminated surfaces or objects.
For long, it has been argued that surface transmission is a potential risk and that the virus can stay on certain surfaces for as long as 3-7 days. Various studies have shown that the life of the virus is as much as three days on plastic and steel. On the other hand, on surfaces like cardboard and copper, it can survive for a good 24 hours and four hours respectively.
Research has also shown that the virus can remain suspended in air for nearly 30 minutes.
But a regular edit made by US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on its website was perceived as CDC downgrading its view on surface transmission – and that caused a bit of a social media sensation.
The Centre eventually said that the initial edit was confusing and clarified that indirect contact through contaminated surface, remains a potential risk. But it added that “this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads”.
How Does the Chain of Surface Transmission Work?
Speaking to The Quint, Subhojit Sen, who is a scientist at Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences in Mumbai and also a member of a voluntary group called Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19, said that the droplets that come out of the mouth of an infected person while they sneeze, cough or even exhale, are the primary source of the virus.
"“Direct contact by hugging, touching, shaking hands and then when a positive person speaks or even spits, coughs, sneezes or even exhales... droplets are continuously being released. These are the primary sources of transmission. Then, within the next few minutes, these droplets settle down eventually on various surfaces within about 1-2 metres. This is the second source of infection. The good news is, however, the virus doesn’t enter through skin. So, we are safe that way but the moment we touch these hands to our face, the virus can enter through our eyes, nose or even mouth.”" - Subhojit Sen, Scientist, Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences
“The third mode is what we called fomites. The fomites are essentially anything that a positive person uses and walks away. Things like towels, pillows, handkerchiefs and so on. The main problem with containing COVID-19 infections is that we can’t tell who is being infected,” Sen added.
As Dr Sen pointed out, the virus can knowingly or unknowingly infect a healthy person. And, as per the Union Health Ministry, nearly 80 percent of India's patients are asymptomatic which makes it difficult to identify. So, is there risk associated with stepping out of homes?
Another member of the same group and a science educator, Rohini Karandikar, said while there is risk associated with going out, one must remember that an infected person is the greatest source of infection.
What Precautions Should I Take as I Step Out?
Now, a social experiment done by a Japanese broadcaster showed how quickly the virus spreads from one person to another at a dinner table. To demonstrate the transmission, they applied fluorescent paint on the hands of the participants at the beginning of dinner and showed how, by the end of it, the paint was found on almost every person in the room.
Owing to this, concerns are being raised about the relaxations and questions are being put forth about what should one do to keep themselves safe.
Sen said that the only way to stay safe is to be alert and maintain a high level of personal hygiene.
“Once the lockdown lifts and people continue to maintain physical distancing and sanitary caution with proper care, we can ensure that the doubling time doesn’t become any shorter. If it does, however, we might see a second way of this pandemic,” Sen added.
On Thursday, 5 June, India added more than 9,000 cases taking the total number of coronavirus patients in the country to over 2 lakh. We have also been climbing the global charts and India is now the sixth worst-hit country in the world because of coronavirus.
With the reopening of all activities, except in containment zones, it is important for each one of us to exercise caution and be wary. Wash your hands, wear a mask while going out, avoid touching common surfaces and then you face.
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