Should you still wipe down grocery purchases?
The risk of getting infected from surfaces such as grocery packaging is small
Like a lot of people, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Anna Barr Folinsky of Brighton cleaned grocery-store purchases with disinfecting wipes before putting them away at home.
At that point it was recommended as a best practice to avoid contagion. The thinking was that because the virus can survive on surfaces for short periods of time, someone could touch a contaminated item and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth and possibly infect themselves.
Now, however, a lot more is known about how COVID-19 spreads — primarily from person to person through droplets in the air. The risk of getting it from surfaces, including grocery packaging, is “exceedingly small,” said Melissa Bronstein, senior director of infection prevention for Rochester Regional Health and a registered nurse.
The most up-to-date information on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “because of the poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely a very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.” In fact, it goes on to say that no cases of COVID-19 have been linked to people touching food or food packaging and then touching their faces.
“Some people are really scared, so if it makes them feel safer to wipe things down, then it’s important for them to do that,” said Katrina Korfmacher, director, Community Engagement Core of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Environmental Health Sciences Center. (She noted that it should be done safely, so they don’t end up ingesting disinfectants.)
But in general, there is little to be gained from the practice. So, like a lot of people, Folinsky no longer wipes down her groceries, which subtracts “one minor source of stress" from daily life, she said.
Likewise, as more has been learned about how people become infected, other early-pandemic rituals have gone by the wayside: for instance, wiping down or immediately discarding takeout food containers.
“Takeout containers don’t pose any special risk,” Bronstein said.
And if someone with the virus coughs or sneezes on your takeout food and you eat it, could you get sick?
As the CDC and health experts note, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, not a foodborne illness. Currently, there is no evidence that it can be transmitted by food.
“A more realistic risk is if (an infected) restaurant worker was face to face with you without wearing a mask,” Bronstein said.
Folinsky also used to “quarantine” dry goods for three days to let any virus present on their surfaces die off. She no longer does.
Bronstein agrees that there is no need "to let things sit for days." In fact, failing to refrigerate perishable items promptly poses other health risks, she said. Washing your hands after handling store-bought items, and washing your hands in general, does far more good than focusing on surfaces, including at home.
At the start of the crisis, there was an intense focus on scrupulous cleaning — hence the disappearance of disinfecting wipes from store shelves.
“Certainly, if someone in the household is sick, quarantining them and cleaning the surfaces they may be touching frequently is important,” Bronstein said. “But if everyone is well in your household and there’s no indication that anyone is an asymptomatic carrier, routine cleaning is adequate for sanitation.”
Reusable grocery store bags should be cleaned regularly and when visibly soiled, she said. But the risk of contracting coronavirus from them “is still very low,” she noted.
Korfmacher, also an associate professor of environmental medicine, said it certainly doesn't hurt to wash the bags, “especially if it is something you worry about.”
As for the risks associated with grocery shopping itself, "It depends on the shopper and the conditions at the store,” Bronstein said.
For people with health conditions that would heighten their chances of developing serious complications from COVID-19, any activity that puts them in an enclosed space with other people is considered higher-risk. For shoppers who don’t have complicating conditions and who wear masks, practice social distancing, minimize their time in stores and wash their hands, the risks are lower.
There also is value in wearing a mask when using restaurant drive-thru pickup windows because they put you in close proximity to restaurant workers, she said.
Speaking of masks: There are so many different kinds. Is one type better than another?
“The most important thing is to wear a mask that fully covers the wearer’s nose and mouth and is secure enough that the wearer won’t need to adjust it,” Bronstein said. “Multi-layers seem to offer more protection, especially for cloth masks. Filters probably add some protection, but they may make it harder to breathe, which may make the wearer less likely to wear the mask properly.”
She said wearing rubber or latex gloves is seldom called for, except when cleaning the room of an infected person. “Then, wearing gloves is appropriate," she said. "Be sure to clean your hands after removing the gloves.”