Physician answers most commonly asked coronavirus questions

Should you disinfect your shopping? Can COVID-19 live on clothes? Find out.

Common COVID-19 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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    To make a comment, please register or login
    3rd Apr 2020
    I really don't care what anyone says, I have always and will forever wash all my fruit & veges before I prepare to cook them, or eat them raw.
    3rd Apr 2020
    I agree, unless you grow it yourself, you are more likely to pick up bacteria on fruit and veggies than a virus.
    Was really annoyed when I bought some limes in a net bag and it smelt so strong of perfume I presume hand sanitiser, had to wash several times and leave it on the bench to air off.
    3rd Apr 2020
    One thing is not mentioned in the article is that the virus strength weakens very quickly on surfaces. (sorry I forget which article I read that said that so cannot give you a link).
    3rd Apr 2020
    There is a section in this article that does tell you about this virus on the different surfaces.
    Hard shiny surfaces(glass, plastic, stainless steel) = up to 72 hours
    cardboard, paper and cloth surfaces = up to 24 hours
    The one product that they have not listed is aluminium, is this a hard shiny product like stainless steel or is it a porous product like cardboard because aluminium has many holes in it and it is used for many everyday drink products.
    So think about this for a moment.
    A glass jar of jam that has just been unpacked out of a cardboard carton and placed on the shelf by hand by a shop attendant who is not wearing gloves and who has the Covid-19 infection. That jar of jam could spread the virus to who ever picks that jar up within the next 72 hours because that is how long the virus can live on glass. What precautions do you take when you go shopping? Do you wear gloves to stop the virus through your contact to the various surfaces?
    4th Apr 2020
    Russell I was just mentioning that the "strength" of the virus weakens as time goes on, so initially it will be as strong as it was when whoever put it there and as the time ticks away it weakens. When I shop I just take what I want and do not touch anything unless I am buying it, I do not touch any surfaces and the cashier had gloves on today when I went.
    5th Apr 2020
    Incognito; The point that I am making which you seem to be missing is that this virus will remain active on different surfaces for different amount of time and like you say it does weaken over a period of time but my point is "What protection do you the buyer take to protect yourself from contracting this virus through picking up items that are packed in the various types of containers. If a glass jar of jam was unpacked and placed on the shelf by someone who has the virus 3 hours before you pick it up what are the chances of you contracting the virus from that glass jam? Remember this jar has only been unpacked for 3 hours. You say that you only take what YOU want but what about a person picking up that same items 30 minutes before you and placing them back on the shelf for you to take? You say that you do not touch any surfaces, well what about you picking up the item that you are buying? Are you not touching that surface? You say that the cashier wears gloves, but are you wearing gloves when you go shopping or are you using your bare hands to pick up the items that someone else could have picked up and put back with their bare hands thus infecting that item that you have just picked up. Think about it. Why not wear disposable gloves for your own protection when you go shopping and clean all containers before you put them in the cupboard?
    11th Apr 2020
    I heard on a TV News a couple of weeks ago that the Corona Virus was found to be active on the cruise ship off the coast of Japan, where so many people were infected, 17 days after the last passenger left.
    3rd Apr 2020
    After reading the above with the mention of plastic, I’m wondering about bottled water as I normally drink from the plastic bottle. As I purchase the packs of 20, some of the bottles would be past the 72 hours and no risk, but the first few? Just wondering, as I hadn’t given it a thought before. I guess the answer would be to pour the water into a glass if concerned.
    3rd Apr 2020
    Who has unpacked the plastic bottles of sauce or any other product in a plastic container at the supermarket. Were they wearing gloves? Has someone else handled those plastic containers without wearing protective gloves? How about tins of spaghetti, tuna, vegetables or other products in this type of packaging? So how many ways can this virus be contracted without knowing? Have you picked up the plastic bottle with your unprotected hand. How many people just go to the supermarket and grab the bottles, cans, packets without even thinking about who may have handled that container before you have and did they use protective measures in case they had the virus. This leaves many questions unanswered now on whether this virus can be passed from one to another via the different packaging of food products at the supermarkets
    4th Apr 2020
    You could invest in a water filter for you tap water Jude, bottled water is a complete rip off, it is mostly tap water.
    4th Apr 2020
    Great to see you contributing to the pollution problem Jude.
    Keep up the good work!
    4th Apr 2020
    Also while the products -- are awaiting packing rats and mice and all kinds of critters are walking and peeing all over them --

    As Incognito said to invest in a water filter as you know not where the hell the bottled rubbish comes from AND it is dearer than petrol -- and adding to the plastic waste we are trying to get rid off
    4th Apr 2020
    Russell, my son does part time work at Woolies as a shelf filler and at the moment they do not wear gloves to unpack and stack the shelves, they do have to sanitise their hands but after the first few items unpacked and stacked I think that would not offer them or the customer selecting their items much protection. Our Woollies here have put clear screens in front of the checkout people to protect them.
    5th Apr 2020
    Thanks Russell, certainly opened my eyes to things I hadn’t thought about! It’s always good to get some helpful advice. I mainly do online shopping due to mobility difficulties so I will out a protective way of unpacking my order.
    3rd Apr 2020
    I always have and always will wah all fruit and Veg b4 they have put away and then again b4 they are used -- and wash every can b4 it is opened and put the plastic bags from the shops on a piece of newspaper to be thrown out afterward, everything is washed b4 it is put in the cupboard
    3rd Apr 2020
    What protection do you use when you pick up a can of spaghetti or a bottle of tomato sauce off the shelf at the supermarket?
    4th Apr 2020
    Disposables gloves and the trolley always gets wiped down with Dettol wipes as well n4 I touch it.

    I have always had them in the house for when I am making rissoles and such --

    I also carry with me Huggies wipes with Dettol -- and I wipe my hands b4 I get back in the car and also the car door handle steering wheel/gear stick, etc
    fish head
    3rd Apr 2020
    Russell, use disposable gloves - if you can find any.
    3rd Apr 2020
    I heard a Doctor say that the COVID-19 was found tgo be active still 17 days after the last person left the cruise ship in Japan, I don't think anyone really know a great deal about this v irus, advice changes every day, just look at the advice about wearing face masks, some drs say wear them others say no, who do we believe.
    4th Apr 2020
    They are making it up as they go from very limited research.
    8th Apr 2020
    Medical staff wear masks to protect and prevent themselves from becoming sick when there are high risks of infections present.
    Also, 30 - 50% of people are symptomless of the Corona disease but are still passing it on to others who may or may not acquire symptoms but may fall down dead.
    4th Apr 2020
    What a stupid term - social distancing! Only a bureaucrat could have come up with this term.
    Why not something meaningful such as - personal separation?
    4th Apr 2020
    I say wearing some sort of face-covering -- even a scarf -- as I note if you look at your mobile after you have spoken on it for awhile there is always some spots on it so you must send out SOME form of spital - even through you do not notice it
    5th Apr 2020
    Regardless of the virus you should always wash your fruit and vegetables, even home grown ones. At home you may not know whether or not there has been rats or other vermin that can cause illness. If rats are under the soil and you come in contact with their faeces you can get a liver problem. I personally one person who got sick from it.
    8th Apr 2020
    Ideally, we should be wearing surgical masks, not social distancing because 30 to 50 % of people with the Corona disease do not have symptoms yet are infectious to others!
    Also, these people may get too close to others in supermarkets as not everyone remember to keep their distance so it is better to wear masks if possible.
    Sick people should be at home!
    After all, it is your life so it is your informed choice keeping in mind that China produced most of the world's supply of masks which are scarce now due to China lockdown so government can only recommend 'social distancing ' which is basically unsatisfactory.
    8th Apr 2020
    China has lifted restrictions after two months, they have been back at work for awhile now.
    10th Apr 2020
    For those rare souls that want to delve more deeply into the issue, here is an excellent discussion between cutting edge experts

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