You don’t have to sanitize your apples anymore, but you do have to wear a mask
This story is part of “Six Months In,” a special weeklong Elemental series reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what the future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Atthe beginning of the pandemic in March, Jeffrey VanWingen, MD, a Michigan family physician, scared the bejeezus out of people and infuriated food scientists. During his 13-minute video, which went viral on YouTube and has been viewed over 26 million times, VanWingen tells people that when they come back from the grocery store, they should leave groceries outside for three days, spray disinfectant onto each product, and soak produce in soapy water. His rationale was that those items might carry the novel coronavirus and could potentially infect people after they come into contact with them.
Six months later, we’ve learned a lot about how SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and it turns out most of VanWingen’s tips are largely unnecessary and some are flat-out dangerous (you should never bleach your food, but hopefully you already knew that). Instead of obsessing over objects and surfaces, scientists now say the biggest infection risk comes from inhaling what someone else is exhaling, whether it’s a tiny aerosol or a larger droplet. And while a virus traveling through the air sounds terrifying, the good news is there is a safe, cheap, and effective way to stop the spread: wearing a mask. Here are the three primary pathways of transmission, and what experts know about them six months in.
Surfaces don’t seem to matter as much as originally thought
The surface or fomite theory — that you’ll get infected by coming into contact with objects that carry the virus, called fomites, like door handles, shopping carts, or packages — was the original leading contender because that’s how scientists and epidemiologists think most respiratory diseases are spread. For example, when a person sick with a cold coughs or sneezes, tiny snot and saliva particles that carry the virus go shooting out of their nose and mouth and land on nearby surfaces. If someone else touches that surface and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes they could become infected with the virus. This is why we’re supposed to wash our hands before eating or preparing food, and after using public transportation, or touching door handles, especially during cold and flu season.
“I’m not saying that you can’t get it, that it’s impossible to get it from surfaces, but a very specific set of events have to occur for that to happen.”
Supporting this idea, an early study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 survived on various surfaces for several days, including 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on plastic. Public health organizations recommended hand hygiene as the first line of defense against the virus, and there were runs on Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer at supermarkets and drugstores, the supply chains for which still have not recovered.
Original publication 16 September, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 5th October 2020
Reference to an article does not infer endorsement of any views expressed.