I’m a huge advocate for snail mail. But when I thought about sending a Mother’s Day card this year, I felt uneasy. I'd heard that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 through mail was small, but the last thing I wanted to do was to send my mom (and my mom friends) the virus, along with my gushy greetings.
Luckily, experts are sticking with their earlier assertions that sending a card in the mail is fairly safe. "In general we know there's not great survivability of the virus on services over several days to a week, which is how long it takes to send mail,” says Lauren M. Sauer, the director of research for Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Biocontainment Unit. “On cardboard, for example, it can only last roughly 24 hours because it’s a porous material that dries quickly.”
In fact, viable virus particles can’t last on printing paper for more than three hours, according to a study in The Lancet journal. So maybe this is the year to eschew the thicker store-bought cards in favor of a homemade option.
For even more peace of mind: The U.S. The Postal Service has systems in place that disinfect the machines carrying the mail, and they've been working to perfect their cleansing practices long before the outbreak, Sauer notes. “[They] ensure their materials are cleaned when they’re processing mail, and their people are wearing PPE,” she says. “As the card goes through the system and takes a couple days to get delivered, there’s not a high likelihood [that the virus will survive]. Your risk is relatively low.”
In a statement, the USPS said their cleaning policies have been updated to be consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic guidance. Still, in March, The New York Times reported that postal workers across the country have fallen ill. One postal carrier told ABC News that finding hand sanitizer has been a difficult.
To be extra safe, Sauer suggests that card senders wash their hands before writing in a card, and use a wetted sponge to seal the envelope instead of licking it. Card recipients can use a disinfectant wipe on the envelope, and wash their hands after opening it. If they want to be super cautious, they can let their mail sit for a day — or at least three hours — before handling it.
The same rules apply even if you forgo the USPS and drop off your card by hand, Sauer says.
“Take precautions and wash your hands — but this is a time where we can all use simple pleasures like getting a nice card, so absolutely send mail," Sauer says. "Letters can do a lot for your mental health, and you never know how a postcard or a Mother’s Day card could brighten someone’s day."