Physician answers most commonly asked coronavirus questions

Confusing social distancing rules, different self-isolation standards in each state, a barrage of information daily – much of which conflicts with earlier reports. It’s difficult to figure the myths from the facts when it comes to COVID-19.

Social distancing and self-isolation may prevent people from being infected via direct contact with respiratory droplets. However, it is still possible to become infected by other means, such as surface contamination, so some other precautions are advisable.

It is most commonly believed that the virus is spread primarily by infected people coughing or sneezing.

However, the potential for someone to get the virus from touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes has not been ruled out by health agencies.

Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty from the Australian Academy of Science, family physician Dr Neha Vyas, immunologist Stuart Tangye, and other respected health experts explain what we do and don’t know so far about the novel coronavirus, and what you can do to minimise your risk at home.

How long does the 2019 novel coronavirus live on surfaces?
Dr Vyas:
A yet-to-be-published study conducted by scientists from the  Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health and other institutions suggests that the 2019 novel coronavirus can live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.

With that in mind, it is a good idea for people to keep their homes clean during this time. If someone in the household is sick, it is especially important to disinfect high-touch surfaces in in the home every day, including doorknobs, handles, tables, countertops, keyboards and light switches.

Prof. Doherty: It can certainly survive longer on plastics and steel; it certainly survives for at least three days, and in the SARS epidemic, of course, we saw people wiping down elevator buttons.

The CDC recommends these tips for disinfecting surfaces in your home:

  • If a surface is visibly dirty, clean it with soap and water first, then use a disinfectant.
  • Wear disposable gloves.
  • Make sure you have good ventilation in the area where you are cleaning.
  • Use a diluted household bleach solution, or an alcohol-based solution with at least 70 per cent alcohol. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of cleaning products that meets its criteria for use against the 2019 novel coronavirus.
  • Follow instructions on the cleaning product’s label and check to make sure it has not expired.
  • Wash your hands when you are finished.

You can also follow the guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting during an outbreak supplied by the Australian Department of Health.

Do items of food require special cleaning?
Dr Vyas:
The 2019 novel coronavirus causes respiratory illness, not foodborne illness – meaning it affects the lungs, not the digestive system. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, there is currently no reason to believe that the virus has been spread via food or food packaging.

However, officials still urge everyone to follow basic food safety guidelines that call for washing your hands before eating or preparing food, using clean utensils, and properly preparing and storing food. Restaurants and delivery services should also be following safe food preparation and handling practices.

Prof. Doherty: Just open everything, wash your hands before you take the food out of the plastic and maybe transfer it to another plastic bag before you put it in the fridge. It can survive up to nine days on plastics.

Are delivered packages safe?
Dr Vyas:
While the previously mentioned CDC scientists’ study found that the virus can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard, the CDC asserts that chances are low that the virus spreads from packaging that is shipped over a period of days at ambient temperatures.

Prof. Doherty: We’re told it [the coronavirus] can live on cardboard and paper for up to 24 hours. I don’t think that’s likely to be a major source of infection, but it’s something you just might keep in mind when you are taking hold of the pizza box … you open the pizza box and then before you take the food out, wash your hands and then put the pizza box somewhere out of the way.

Can the virus be spread through water?
Dr Vyas:
There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread through drinking water or use of pools or hot tubs, according to the CDC.

NSW Health: Ocean pools and baths are filled with untreated sea water, which is changed periodically.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 through swimming in ocean pools/baths is considered low. The COVID-19 virus is unlikely to survive for long periods in saltwater.

People using ocean baths should:

  • stay at home if sick
  • stay at home if you have been asked by health authorities to self-isolate
  • do not swim if you have had diarrhoea
  • shower with soap before swimming
  • minimise time spent out of the pool
  • comply with social distancing (try to keep 1.5 metres from other people as much as possible)
  • comply with protective measures when in the change rooms and outside the pool (clean your hands, cover coughs and sneezes)
  • follow the usual health advice to avoiding swimming for least one day after rain
  • try to attend when the pool is less busy.

Public drinking water supplies are safe to drink, however the surfaces around a water fountain including the spout and button/lever could pose a transmission risk for COVID-19 and other germs. At this stage, it is not certain how long viruses that cause COVID-19 survives on surfaces.

NSW Health recommends that you not place your mouth on the spout of a water fountain. Test the water flow and let the water run for a few seconds before drinking the water without putting your mouth or lips on the spout.

If the fountain requires you to push a button or lever, clean the surface first or use your elbow. Clean your hands afterwards with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. NSW Health recommends that organisations carry out more frequent cleaning of water bubblers and fountains.

Can the virus live on clothes?
Dr Vyas:
Specific research has not been done on how long this virus can survive on clothes, towels or other fabrics. However, it is still advisable to change and wash clothes regularly – especially when returning from the grocery store or for people who still need to report to work every day.

Wash your clothes using the warmest appropriate water setting for clothes and drying them completely. In addition, do not shake laundry items until they are cleaned, as this could potentially disperse germs from clothes when they are dirty.

If you are caring for someone who is sick, their clothes can be washed with the other household items, but disposable gloves should be worn when handling them and hands washed with soap and water as soon as the gloves are removed. In addition, it is important to disinfect hampers and the knobs on the washer and dryer.

Could the virus be carried on skin?
Dr Vyas:
Germs can live on different parts of the body, but the main concern here is people’s hands. Hands are what are most likely to come in contact with germy surfaces and then touch the face, which is a potential path of transmission for the virus. People can continue to shower regularly as they normally would, but there is no need to wash the whole body multiple times a day like they should their hands.

Prof. Tangye: [The researchers] did a pretty good study considering the different types of surfaces that we would encounter on a day-to-day basis.

If it’s something like cardboard or something more absorbent, that could influence how long the virus could hang around for.

Alternatively, that could also reflect the presence of other factors that might be on those surfaces that would contribute to the breakdown of the virus.

For example, on the surface of your skin (which the study didn’t look at) you’ve got hair and also oils that could affect the stability of the virus.

What other questions do you have about coronavirus?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?
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