In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are seeing the world a little differently. Take public transport. As soon as I step on the tube, I start to make some mental calculations. What's my best bet, if my goal is avoiding the virus? Should I grab a metal pole? Sit down? If there's a fabric or plastic-y strap available, is that the better option?
As you may already know, COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If an infected person coughs or sneezes, those virus-laden droplets spread to nearby surfaces — a subway pole, or restaurant table, or coffee cup. And if someone else comes by and touches those spots, then touches their face, they can end up getting sick.
What's more, the coronavirus can linger — for up to nine days, depending on what it's touching, says Darshan Shah, MD, founder and Medical Director at Next Health. But not all surfaces are created equal. Here's what you need to know about virus hotspots, and how you can avoid them.
How long can coronavirus live on metal, glass, and plastic?
In a laboratory setting (more on this below), coronavirus can survive on metal for up to five days, glass for four to five days, and plastic for up to nine days, according to a study recently conducted by the Journal of Hospital Infection.
As for how to clean, the CDC suggests using a general household cleaner first. Then rinse with water, and use EPA-registered disinfectant, such as Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol Brand Clean & Fresh Multi-Surface Cleaner. Follow the instructions on the product; some require you to use enough disinfectant for surface you're cleaning to remain wet for several minutes.
How long can coronavirus live on fabric?
It's not clear yet, but it may have shorter lifespans on fabrics. Viruses can get trapped in the small spaces and holes in cloth, preventing transfer, says The New York Times. The Journal of Hospital Infection study found that coronavirus can live on disposable gowns (a.k.a. hospital gowns) from one hour to two days, but the researchers didn't look at fabrics.
Maybe because the risk of contracting the illness from clothing is relatively small, the guidance the CDC gives on cleaning it and other fabrics pertains to if someone in your household is sick. In that case, the organisation suggests wearing disposable gloves to touch dirty laundry, or washing your hands immediately after handling it. Set your machine to its warmest setting, and make sure the items are totally dry before using them again.
Is there any good news?
Yes, actually. As I mentioned, the above information is based on a study done in a lab. In "real world" conditions, the virus may not be able to last that long.
During a media availability with Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, Oxiris Barbot, MD, the Commissioner of Health for New York City, said: "This is a novel virus that we're still learning a lot about, and there is still science that is coming out. You will find in the literature that in a lab setting you can have the virus live up to a couple of hours, but in every day world scenarios what we're learning from our partners from around the globe is that typically, it's in the range of minutes," she explained. "Now as we learn more that range of minutes may shift to the right or to the left but I think focusing on the number of minutes is the wrong place to focus."
The final word? Remember, keep washing your hands. “Respiratory viruses don’t infect through your skin, they infect through your mucous membranes: the eyes, nose, and mouth," Julie Vaishampayan, MD, chairwoman of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in an interview in The New York Times.
That means that being careful about what you touch, keeping your hands away from your face, and washing and sanitising them frequently can go a long way in keeping you healthy.