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Can I get the virus from handling mail? Answering readers’ COVID-19 questions

There is a lot that is not yet known about COVID-19, the new coronavirus that emerged in China late last year.

But public health experts and officials do have advice on how the public can best protect themselves from the disease.

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How long is someone contagious if they have COVID-19?

On average, about 80% of people who get the virus develop mild disease in five days, according to Dr. Tim Lahey, an infectious disease physician at UVM Medical Center. Most people get sick within two weeks. It’s not clear if people can be infected without symptoms. Many experts “suspect that some people who are infected never develop symptoms at all, but those studies haven’t yet been done,” Lahey said. “Perhaps that is the case with children who seem remarkably unaffected by COVID-19?”

Can the food supply become a source of infection? If so, how do you wash items (like lettuce) to ensure they’re safe?

The FDA is not aware of any cases of the virus transmitting through food or packaging of food.

Experts believe that COVID-19 transmits to other people when someone who is sick sneezes or coughs and the droplets get onto surfaces. Then, other people can pick up the virus by touching those surfaces.

So how long can the virus live on surfaces? It’s not totally clear, and it depends on the surface. The BBC reports that early research finds that COVID-19 can survive in the air for up to three hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic or stainless steel for two to three days. Disinfecting is an important tool here; solutions that include 62-71% alcohol or 0.5% bleach can kill other coronaviruses within a minute.

Surfaces in your house, Lahey says, are most likely “the biggest culprit.” But, he added, “There’s no reason to believe that lettuce is exempt, so usual washing of store-bought veggies can’t hurt.”

No need for any special treatment of produce. Rinsing in cool water is the best way to handle fruits and veggies that come back from the grocery store, a food safety expert told the Seattle Times.

I’ve received mail that’s gone through states where there are outbreaks. Can I get the virus from handling that mail?

There’s no evidence that the virus can transfer through the mail and it’s highly unlikely — Lahey characterized it as “on the level of likelihood as a lightning strike.” Personally, Lahey doesn’t take any special steps with his packages.

What steps should people take steps to make their homes safer?

Wiping down and disinfecting surfaces is a good step. Apartment Therapy points out that to disinfect effectively, you should clean surfaces first so germs can’t hide out. Wash your hands. (“Soap and water is plenty, so don’t try to buy Purell – leave that to hospitals,” Lahey advises.)

Lahey also suggests putting together a plan to try to protect those in your household who are more at risk. The CDC has advice on that.

Many events are being canceled or pushed back because of the coronavirus outbreak. What will postponing gatherings accomplish?

Social distancing — including the steps the state has taken to close schools, ban gatherings of more than 50 people, and close restaurants and bars — will slow down the rate at which COVID-19 spreads. It won’t necessarily prevent the illness from infecting more people. However, slowing it down will mean that medical treatment is more likely to be available to people who need it, when they need it. This is what experts call “flattening the curve.”

In practical terms: Avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. Try to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others. Ditch handshakes in favor of the Wuhan shake (a foot tap named for the Chinese city where the illness first emerged), a slight bow, or a Vulcan greeting. Wash your hands, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, frequently.

As to gatherings of a few friends, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending against social visits right now, according to NPR. Try moving dinner parties online, and bring your own supper to digital gatherings on services like Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom.