As the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads around the world, it has become clear it is highly infectious and hard to stop.
Much of the focus has been on person-to-person transmission. Certainly the use of quarantines and travel restrictions can help slow the spread.
Although airborne transmission has been viewed as the biggest risk, there are concerns about the coronavirus spreading via objects and surfaces touched by people and transmission via water and food.
Consequently, you may be wondering about the safety of buying products online, particularly if they originated from areas with virus outbreaks.
There are some surprises, one of them being that there are steps you can easily and inexpensively take to reduce risk.
Online vs. Local Shopping
Online, mail order, and phone shopping all reduce your person-to-person contact. That’s a good thing as the most likely way COVID-19 spreads is via airborne droplets and aerosols over short distances, with risk being highest within 2 meters (roughly 6 feet) of infected people.
Reducing the time spent around other people, the number of other people with whom you come into contact, and proximity will all help reduce your risk for infection and online shopping does all of that.
So if your local area has many cases of the virus, online shopping is highly likely to be safer because you’re less likely to be exposed to airborne virus coming from those who are infectious but may not even know they are infected.
But what if your local area has few cases and you are ordering from a large online retailer that has facilities in major outbreak areas?
The answer then largely comes down to how long can the virus last on surfaces. Fortunately, there is some good information coming from scientific research that helps to understand and reduce the risks.
Delivery Process Risks
Although you do not visit your vendor’s site in person, delivery drivers come to your home. They might be infected, and even if that package was clean when shipped, it could be infected along the way to your home.
Since there is generally just one driver, sometimes with a helper, that is already a risk reduction versus walking through parking lots and stores with dozens or hundreds of people passing through them. But drivers can get sick, especially given COVID-19 can have infectious yet symptomless incubation periods that can be a few days up to maybe as much as 27 days according to some reports from China.
To reduce risk, you can opt to just let the drive leave your package at the door instead of opening it and possibly getting exposed to a sick person at short distance. Leave a delivery acceptance form signed at your door if the package requires a signature.
But what if that driver is infected and sneezes on your package and then leaves it at your door?
Disinfect Public Areas
If a sick delivery person rings your doorbell to deliver a package, you should consider that everything they were nearby during that sneeze could be covered with droplets containing virus. That’s not just the package, but also your whole door area including doorbell button and door handle.
Consider spraying these surfaces and wiping them down using a disinfectant spray. Be sure to wash your hands with soap after touching such surfaces.
But what about that package? Is it going to kill you?
Package Materials, Environment, and Shipping Routes All Matter
It turns out that cardboard, such as the outer boxes of packages commonly used by online and mail order vendors, is relatively safe compared to plastics and even “hygienic” materials such as stainless steel.
Researchers from UCLA, Princeton University, NIH, and CDC recently published a preliminary study that helps understand the risk.
The abstract of the paper Aerosol and surface stability of HCoV-19 (SARS-CoV-2) compared to SARS-CoV-1 reads:
HCoV-19 (SARS-2) has caused >88,000 reported illnesses with a current case-fatality ratio of ~2%. Here, we investigate the stability of viable HCoV-19 on surfaces and in aerosols in comparison with SARS CoV-1. Overall, stability is very similar between HCoV-19 and SARS-CoV-1. We found that viable virus could be detected in aerosols up to 3 hours post aerosolization, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. HCoV-19 and SARS-CoV-1 exhibited similar half-lives in aerosols, with median estimates around 2.7 hours. Both viruses show relatively long viability on stainless steel and polypropylene compared to copper or cardboard: the median half-life estimate for HCoV-19 is around 13 hours on steel and around 16 hours on polypropylene. Our results indicate that aerosol and fomite transmission of HCoV-19 is plausible, as the virus can remain viable in aerosols for multiple hours and on surfaces up to days.
The scientists believe the virus survives in the environment similarly to the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) from the 2002-2003 outbreak, with the main difference being that COVID-19 (which the study refers to as HCoV-19, yet another abbreviation) survives longer on cardboard surfaces than SARS-CoV does.
Testing was conducted at temperatures of 21-23 degrees Celsius temperatures (69.8 to 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
They found the virus remains viable (infectious) up to 3 hours in airborne aerosols at 65% relative humidity.
The virus survived up to 4 hours on copper surfaces, 24 hours on cardboard, and 2 to 3 days on plastic (polypropylene) and stainless steel. The surface testing was done at 40% relative humidity.
The data for cardboard was “noisy” so they advise caution interpreting that result.
It appears cardboard shipping boxes are likely to be safer and require less time for viral inactivation than plastic wrapped boxes or plastic envelopes.
More surprising is that expensive “hygienic” stainless steel may be such a high risk compared to cheap cardboard.
All that Amazon innovation with easy to open cardboard product packages and their experiments with tapeless outer cardboard shipping boxes could pay off with bonuses for virus safety.
While 40% humidity is rather ideal for an indoor environment, many areas, particularly the Pacific Northwest, midwest, and southeastern portions of the US, often have outdoor humidity much higher than this, especially on rainy days. The virus is likely to remain viable for longer periods in such environments, but how long is as of yet unknown.
Most packages take more than a day to ship from their origin to the destination, so the amount of viable virus remaining at delivery on the outside of a package has more to do with the people and environments along the shipping pathway than where it was packed and sealed.
So far example if your package came from Seattle on a cool rainy day (higher risk) and was shipped to your home and left at the front door in the a Arizona desert city on a hot bright day, that dry desert heat and sunlight should reduce the viable viruses faster than if it was dropped off in cool damp cloudy San Francisco.
Then there’s the matter of the contents of the package.
The infectious potential of the contents of the package is likely determined by the packing site and the packaging of each item.
Packing materials such as paper and cardboard are likely safer than plastic packaging materials such as air pillows and “peanuts”.
Items packaged in cardboard are likely to be safe to touch and open more quickly than items packaged in plastic.
What Can You Do To Reduce Risk?
You can ask delivery drivers to leave packages outside your home. Find out where to get a delivery acceptance form and leave one at your door for packages that require a signature.
If you have to personally accept or sign for a package, try to maintain a 2 meter (roughly 6 feet) distance from the delivery driver as infection potential drops off rapidly after that distance.
The driver may have covered the package with viruses via sneezing, coughing, or otherwise transferring them by touch. Or they could have gotten on the package by transfer from metal shelving in the delivery truck.
When you receive a package, you can quarantine it in a dry location at room temperature or higher. Pick a location that is away from people, especially curious children who may not wash their hands often enough. Be sure to wash your own hands well with soap after handling the package.
If the package is a cardboard box, quarantine of at least one day (preferably two to be cautious) should be enough for the outside. If it is plastic envelope or similar, three or more days would be advisable.
If you know the items and packaging material inside the package are paper and cardboard, it is likely safe to open the package after the appropriate delay based upon the outer shipping package.
If the items inside may include items packaged in plastic or metallic films, waiting 3 or more days before opening the package would be safer, even if they are shipped in a cardboard box.
If you think some of the packing material and products inside may be plastic or metal or metallic film, wait 3 or more days to open.
Extra Cautious Delays
However, an earlier study found that SARS coronavirus could survive on surfaces for up to 9 days. Based upon this, waiting 9 days from when you received the package would be even less risky.
Waiting longer like this may be especially advisable if whatever you bought might come into contact with your body such as cosmetics, personal hygiene items, food, or supplements.
With many days waits like these, you might opt to save some money and choose cheaper ground shipping as you could be waiting a while to safely open the package after it arrives. You may also need to plan your ordering more carefully to account for the longer than usual delays.
Possible Methods to Speed Up COVID-19 Inactivation
If you can’t wait to open your package, for instance it contains something you need right away like a supplement or medicine, there are steps which may speed up viral inactivation.
One study looked at various disinfection methods for blood protein products against SARS coronavirus and found:
- UV-C lights inactivate SARS coronavirus in about 40 minutes
- Heating to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees F) inactivated SARS coronavirus in 30 minutes
Since COVID-19 behaves similarly to SARS coronavirus in the UCLA / Princeton study, UV-C and heat infection likely will work similarly for COVID-19.
Typically solutions require more energy to disinfect than surfaces and dry heat is likely to degrade viruses faster than wet heat, so the above disinfection times are likely also going to work against viruses on the surfaces of packages. It seems likely that even shorter times would work, but how much shorter is uncertain.
It is thought that the virus will be inactivated more quickly at higher temperatures and more slowly at lower temperatures.
Placing a package in direct sunlight in a dry environment for several hours and rotating it to ensure all surfaces are exposed to direct sunlight would likely speed up inactivation of viruses versus a damp shaded environment at little to no cost. Just be sure the package contents will not spoil from this heat and sunlight exposure.
Using disinfectant sprays based upon alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and/or bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is likely to inactivate coronaviruses within a minute based upon previous studies:
The analysis of 22 studies reveals that human coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus or endemic human coronaviruses (HCoV) can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute. Other biocidal agents such as 0.05–0.2% benzalkonium chloride or 0.02% chlorhexidine digluconate are less effective.
You could also try using a UV-C disinfection lamp, but it will only disinfect surfaces which the light can directly contact. Some suggest building a disinfection chamber from a cardboard box lined with aluminum foil, then rotating items inside the chamber to expose all surfaces to UV-C light.
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