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Can You Catch the Coronavirus From the Air or Surfaces?

There is disagreement about how you can catch the coronavirus. Some say you can't catch COVID-19 from aerosols. The NEJM offers a different perspective.
Woman wearing face mask protect filter against air pollution (PM2.5) or wear N95 mask. protect pollution, anti smog and viruses, Air pollution caused health problem. environmental pollution concept.

No doubt you remember looking at videos from China in January and February. Almost everyone there was wearing a mask. Many were also wearing gloves. This week, China reported no new domestic cases of COVID-19. That seems almost impossible, given the number of cases showing up in Europe and the US. Italy and US are in full panic mode. And yet most Americans are still not wearing face masks or disposable gloves when they go out. What about you? Do you think that you can catch the coronavirus from aerosol droplets you can’t see or by touching a pen at the pharmacy counter?

How Long Does COVID-19 Survive?

New research published in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine (March 17, 2020) suggests that the virus can remain viable in the air for at least three hours.

Here are the results from the investigators:

“SARS-CoV-2 remained viable in aerosols throughout the duration of our experiment (3 hours), with a reduction in infectious titer from 103.5 to 102.7 TCID50 per liter of air. This reduction was similar to that observed with SARS-CoV-1, from 104.3 to 103.5 TCID50 per milliliter.”

OK, that’s technical. But the bottom line seems to be that you can catch the coronavirus by breathing in viral particles. If someone checks out at the grocery store and coughs or sneezes while waiting in line and you come along 15 minutes later, you could inhale particles of SARS-CoV-2 if you are not wearing an effective mask or respirator.

What About Surfaces?

Can you catch the coronavirus by touching a gas pump, an elevator button, a doorknob or a stylus at the pharmacy counter? The researchers measured how long the coronavirus lasted on surfaces. They could retrieve viable virus from plastic and stainless steel for up to three days. Virus lasted less than four hours on copper and was not detectable after 24 hours on cardboard.

We interpret that to mean that if someone blows his nose or sneezes into his hands and then touches a doorknob or a gas pump, you could be exposed. From our observations, however, very few people are wearing disposable gloves when they pump gas or open doors.

Dr. Fauci on How You Can Catch the Coronavirus:

Dr. Fauci is Director of NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). He is just about everywhere discussing the coronavirus. We have long admired Dr. Fauci.

He has downplayed the risk of breathing aerosol particles of SARS-CoV-2. He has stated publicly that you do not have to worry too much about breathing viruses unless someone coughs in your face. I am not sure he has read the New England Journal of Medicine article. After all, he has been very busy this week.

Dr. Fauci does worry about shaking hands with people and so elbow bumps instead. He hasn’t seemed too concerned about things like countertops, doorknobs or pens. We certainly hope he is right, but we urge caution.

Here are the conclusions from the researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine:

“Our results indicate that aerosol and fomite [surface] transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is plausible, since the virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces up to days (depending on the inoculum shed). These findings echo those with SARS-CoV-1, in which these forms of transmission were associated with nosocomial [hospital-acquired infections] spread and super-spreading events, and they provide information for pandemic mitigation efforts.”

As a result of this research, it makes sense to us to disinfect surfaces with a virucidal solution. We also think that putting on disposable gloves is wise before going to the pharmacy or grocery store. Wearing a mask, like people in China do, also seems prudent.  After all, their successful struggle against the coronavirus suggests that they have done something right.

Share your thoughts about how people can catch the coronavirus in the comment section below. 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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  • van Doremalen, N., et al, "Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1." New England Journal of Medicine, March 17, 2020. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2004973
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comments (26 total)
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I knew to wear a mask when the first patient in the U.S. came in through Sea-Tac airport. I began wearing masks to go out in February. I’ve been a critical care nurse for over 28 years, and I couldn’t, yet could, (the Big lie) believe what I was hearing, “The Risk is Low,” “Masks are only for those infected, they don’t protect you,” and all the other “yadi yadi yada.”
What my concern is, and I have yet to research it: can this coronavirus be spread via another vector than from human to human, ie., mosquito? Dengue, St. Louis Encephalitis, and a host of other viruses are spread via this route. Can SARS-CoV-2 spread this way also?

Andrea, so far as we have seen, this one is human to human.

If a bare finger touches a virus on a surface and removes it, will the virus enter the blood stream through the skin? Or must it transmitted to the mouth? Can the virus survive the oral route to the blood and lungs? I know that viral diseases are readily transferred by eye and nasal routes but have never seen data on

I’m trying to figure out whether to go to the grocery store or have home delivery. Which is safer?

I am confused. This article started out talking about COVID-19 and ended up talking about SARS-CoV-2. Are they the same virus?

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the disease CO”VID-19.

People at my grocery store are coughing & not covering. Even if I avoid the store & order online, how do I know what happens to virus that may land on my lettuce or broccoli? Is it safe if I quarantine the produce for 3 days in the refrig?

I can wash most produce with soap & water, but what about the greens & berries? Has anybody studied this. Also curious whether the virus could infect the plant cells … perhaps not likely, since it seems you need a lipid to lipid transfer for infection to occur in the case of nCovid. However there are certain viruses that do affect plants …

I know there is a school of thought that the acid of digestion would destroy the virus. But my mouth is not acidic & could receive viral particles. Some people have low stomach acid or take PPIs or meds that reduce stomach acid.

It’s very important to understand that home sewn masks [I’ve made about a dozen] aren’t providing the same protection level as N95 masks. They have no anti-viral properties and are only a temporary barrier against airborne particles [one’s own or others] worn while at the grocery store or an office. They should be very carefully removed upon leaving, maybe only using one finger or a pencil or something, especially if anyone has coughed or sneezed near you, and dropped into a container or plastic bag until you can wash them in hot water, bleach and soap, dried in a hot dryer if possible.

Also, I find that our newspaper plastic bag sleeves are useful for keeping in the car to put over hands when pumping gas, using an ATM, or picking things up that may have been touched by others. I peel the bag back down and carefully discard them, though from what I’ve been reading, if you put the bags aside for a couple days, any viral material will be dead.

Thomas I Roberts P.E., CFM, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
We are so fortunate to live in a country that a People’s Pharmacy and Public Radio can exist to give us up to date information on this current epidemic. We are so fortunate, the Covid-19 epidemic is not much worse. Recorded history shows us this could have been ten or twenty times more deadly. Let us not forget this lesson 6 months, a year or ten years later. Let’s use good science to set policies to prepare for the known threats to all humanity rather than deficit spending our great country into bankruptcy spending unprecedented huge amounts on armaments to destroy our fellow humans.
All of us with any common sense are afraid of the consequences of Covid-19, but let’s channel this fear into action with knowledge to act now to slow the spread of of the virus. Then make it clear to our local and world leaders that preparing for and preventing known and predictable world wide threats to our humankind is much more important to each of us than anything else.
March 21, 2020 – at the very early stages of Covid-19 in the USA and Worldwide.

There is a serious misquote or misprint in the article. The article states, “… reduction in infectious titer from 103.5 to 102.7 TCID50 per liter of air.” The actual numbers were powers of 10. The article misplaced the superscripts. The numbers should have been 10 to the 3.5 power and 10 to the 2.7 power. The aerosol reduction after 3 hours was really more than 10 to 1, not insignificant as the erroneous quote implies. The aerosol was still potentially contagious, but far less so. Please be more careful and correct this error.

Thank you, John, for pointing that out.

There was a Texas map in the Houston Chronicle on-line today. It showed the location of virus locations in Texas. I am puzzled about virus victims in the far reaches of west Texas. How can a person out there ‘catch’ the virus? Does this mean that the virus can ‘blow’ in the wind anywhere? Someone coughs/sneezes outside and the wind blows it everywhere? The article discusses how long the virus can exist in the air but it was not very clear about spreading outside.

Jeanne, it doesn’t seem very likely that the people in west Texas caught it from someone sneezing in Dallas and the wind carrying it there. More likely it was carried by a person who traveled somewhere and interacted with an individual who had the virus, even though they might not have had symptoms yet.

Hopefully one day the supply of masks will be enough for healthcare and also the general public. Until that day, we must minimize our trips outside the house and practice social distancing.

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