As U.S. hospitals prepare for a potential coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, many are growing increasingly concerned about how the deadly virus is transmitted.
Early reports suggested that infected people could spread the virus even before they felt sick–so the perfectly healthy looking person in the seat next to you could be shedding viruses without either of you suspecting there was a problem.
The Centers for Disease Control now says that while it’s possible, that scenario is unlikely. Most transmissions occur directly from a sick and feverish person who is coughing or sneezing.
Other reports are now surfacing that are perhaps even more disturbing–that a coronavirus can potentially live for days on the surface of a public venue. Think of a vinyl seat or handrail, or even a dirty table top. You can accidentally infect yourself by touching a virus and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes.
Another report from China suggests the virus can be transmitted through fecal matter, making public restrooms problematic.
In a report published in The Journal of Hospital Infection, researchers in Germany compiled almost two dozen research papers on coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS that pre-date the COVID-19 outbreak. The collective papers suggest that a human coronavirus can remain viable on an infected surface from a couple of hours up to 9 days, depending on conditions.
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The viruses seem to remain alive longer in cool but humid conditions and on hard surfaces, such as stainless steel, rather than porous surfaces such as paper.
The papers also looked at ways to inactivate viruses. While soap and water works, the viruses were killed more quickly by hydrogen peroxide or bleach. “Surface disinfection with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62–71% ethanol significantly reduces coronavirus infectivity on surfaces within 1 min[ute] exposure time,” say the authors.
The feces study is equally disturbing. While coronaviruses have been detected before in feces, it has been unclear if they were viable enough to be transmitted to another person. In a new report, the Centers for Disease Control in China found a single viable coronavirus in fecal matter.
“This virus has many routes of transmission, which can partially explain its strong transmission and fast transmission speed,” the China CDC wrote.
So is it time to panic?
The U.S. CDC maintains that the most likely way you would ever get COVID-19 is if you were within 6 feet of a sick and infectious person, and either breathed in droplets from their coughs and sneezes or touched them and then touched your mouth, nose or eyes.
The CDC is also emphatic that the best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands–often and really, really well. That means at least 20 seconds lathering up with a lot of soap followed by a good rinse. Then dry them with a clean towel or air drier.
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