What to do if someone in your apartment building has tested positive for coronavirus

Elevator Buttons
Commonly-touched surfaces, like elevator buttons, can harbor infectious levels of coronavirus, which is why it's important to wipe these surfaces down regularly.

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  • The coronavirus pandemic has apartment dwellers concerned that they'll be infected by a neighbor.

  • But there's no reason for residents to panic, according to infectious disease experts who spoke with Business Insider.

  • Residents of the building, building management and the infected person can help keep the risk low by following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines as strictly as possible.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in dense urban cities in the US, some residents of multi-unit buildings will undoubtedly be faced with the reality of an infected neighbor.

But there's no reason for neighbors in an apartment or condo building to panic, according to infectious disease experts who spoke with Business Insider, as the risk of the virus passing through the building is low if proper practices such as self-quarantine and social distancing are followed.

"Theoretically if someone is infected we are pretty confident as long as the person stays in the room the risk [of transmission] should be low," said Dr. Thomas Russo, Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the University at Buffalo.

Experts say that the risk of widespread infection in a building is unlikely because the mode of transmission of the coronavirus is primarily respiratory, meaning it is spread directly through breathing in respiratory droplets expelled by sneezes or coughs, which requires close contact with an infected individual. Social distancing of at least six feet will minimize that risk.

And if you're worried about getting the virus through the air vents, "airborne transmission from person-to-person over long distances is unlikely," according to the CDC.

The virus particles, "are typically only suspended in air for short periods of time, though this virus has been detected suspended in air (what we call aerosols) for up to three hours," said Dr. Anthony Kaveh, a Stanford and Harvard trained physician anesthesiologist and integrative medicine specialist. "We do not suspect that this represents a major mode of contracting the disease," Kaveh said. One caveat is that if you're outside, the wind might help infectious aerosols travel longer distances than they otherwise might.

The secondary mode of spread is through touching surfaces that those droplets have landed on and then touching the face, eyes, or mouth.

How to mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19 if you live in an apartment building

To keep the risk as low as possible, experts say, it falls on both the residents of the building, building management and the infected person or people to follow the Center for Disease Control's guidelines as strictly as possible.

If you feel sick, "you need to go ahead and stay in the house … you should not go out unless you have no other options," Russo said. "If you do you should wear a mask. Have other people shop and leave [groceries] outside your door. Put a mask on to go out to get your food."

For residents of a building with a confirmed case, the most important precaution to take is to practice good hand hygiene by restraining from touching your face and ensuring you wash your hands when entering your unit.

"If I were living in an apartment building I would limit my time outside my household or apartment," said Anthony Santella, a public health professor at Hofstra University.

"We can really only control things inside of where we live. Even if you have the best intentions and follow CDC guidelines you can't control the behaviors of other individuals."

Santella recommended avoiding getting into an elevator with other residents and wiping down anything that is exposed to other people that you might end up touching such as door handles, mailboxes, and elevator buttons.

"It may mean taking the stairs or waiting for an empty elevator," he said. "I would be very careful of what I touch. What we are learning about the virus is that it can live on different surfaces for different lengths of time. Whether it's plastic, wood, metal, etcetera, the virus will live for different times depending on the surface."

According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can remain infectious on cardboard for up to 24 hours, on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours, and on copper for up to four hours.

When regularly wiping down surfaces in the household do it first with cleaner and secondly with disinfectant, both experts advised. And if you have roommates, be extra cautious.

"If you were living in an apartment with three or four roommates and they are touching the microwave, and the kitchen counter, then you touch your eye, you eat a burrito, that's how the virus gets inside of us," Santella said.

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