Remember the great Lysol panic-buying of 2020? Turns out, it probably wasn’t necessary. A year ago, we knew so little about the coronavirus that was rapidly infecting hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It only made sense to be extra cautious until scientists had more data to work with—and now they do.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released a new scientific brief that says your risk of contracting COVID-19 from a surface is about 1 in 10,000. That means, on average, you have a 0.01% chance of actually picking up the virus from, say, touching a counter.
For the brief, CDC researchers analyzed a slew of data on surface survival times of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, along with epidemiological data on how people have become infected with the virus. The conclusion: You’re much, much more likely to get COVID-19 from exposure to virus-laden respiratory droplets than from a surface. “Surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low,” the CDC confirmed.
“Viruses can’t reproduce on surfaces—they need to get inside cells in order to do that,” explains William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. On a surface, “the amount of virus is diminishing constantly,” he explains, noting that it “can die off fairly quickly.”
But don’t toss your carefully curated cleaning supplies just yet. Ahead, infectious disease experts break down why it’s still crucial to keep up with certain hygiene practices.
First, how long can SARS-CoV-2 survive on surfaces?
Research based on laboratory findings published in The New England Journal of Medicine discovered this information back in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic in the U.S. Here’s how long SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to live on select surfaces:
plastic: 72 hours
steel: 72 hours
glass: 72 hours
cardboard: 24 hours
copper: 4 hours
Many factors influence your chances of getting COVID-19 from a surface, though.
While your overall risk is low, the CDC says various factors still play a role in this form of transmission, like the infection rates in your community, how much of the virus is deposited onto surfaces, and the time between when a surface first becomes contaminated with the virus and when a person actually touches the surface.
That means, depending on the circumstances, if you happen to touch a contaminated surface, there may not be enough living virus on it to cause illness if you were to then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes, says Dr. Schaffner.
But you may also have a higher chance of infection under the right conditions, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “If you’re in an indoor environment where someone is infectious, they breathe viral particles on a surface, you instantly touch it and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can get infected,” he says, emphasizing that continuing to wear a mask and good hand hygiene “will essentially prevent that.”
What’s the best way to clean surfaces to minimize COVID-19 transmission?
More hopeful news: The CDC says “in most situations,” you’re just fine to clean a surface using soap or detergent, and once a day is enough if you feel the need to be extra thorough. You actually don’t need disinfectants under most circumstances, the agency says.
However, if someone in your household has COVID-19, that’s a different story—ditto for indoor areas that are used by a community where someone with a known or suspected COVID-19 infection visited within the last 24 hours. In these scenarios, the CDC does recommend disinfection of high-touch surfaces to keep the risk of transmission low.
Why is washing your hands still important?
The CDC still stresses the importance of hand hygiene, and doctors agree that regularly washing your hands (or using hand sanitizer in a pinch) is still a crucial step in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“People invariably touch their face,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. If there happens to be enough coronavirus particles surviving on a surface you just touched, you still have a slim chance of getting sick, especially if you are not yet fully vaccinated.
“Hand hygiene is key to keep you healthy as a whole,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Keep doing your good hand washing and you’ll protect yourself not only against COVID but other infectious agents, too.”
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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