A: Good news: you can stop wiping your groceries down with bleach. While you’re at it, you can stop quarantining your mail and Amazon boxes.
As it turns out, you’re much more likely to fall ill from inhaling something that came straight out of the mouth or nose of the person standing next to you in the grocery store than from picking up viral material from the things you bring home. It’s still theoretically possible, just very, very unlikely [edited to add: if you are washing your hands!]. In fact to date, there have been no cases of COVID-19 definitively linked to food or food packaging.
In order to protect the essential workers who staff our grocery stores, we need stores to remain uncrowded. If you can use curbside pickup or delivery, do it. That means less people in the store who don’t work there.
If you need to go in, get organized first so that you can spend a minimum of time in the store, go solo if possible, try to go during off-peak hours, and definitely wear a mask.
You can get other nasty bugs from your groceries, especially the ones you eat raw. Remember in January when there was that E. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce? Seems like a lifetime ago.
So it won’t hurt you to do that pump of hand sanitizer on the way in and wash your hands when you return home. It’s also generally a good idea to rinse your fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, and use a drop of dish soap and a scrubber on things with a hard rind that ends up getting eaten raw (like melons). If you use reusable grocery bags, toss them in the washing machine every so often. But all this is not due to COVID-19–this is general advice to keep you from getting food poisoning.
But I heard that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on cardboard for 24 hours!?
Yes, in April, a New England Journal of Medicine reported that in a laboratory setting, the virus remained viable on different surfaces for between 4 and 24 hours. But laboratories and the real world are very different places. To date, there have *still* been no cases of COVID-19 linked to food or food packaging. As it turns out, it’s just very unlikely that we would ever get enough of the virus into our nose or mouth to make us sick through contact with surfaces.
A couple of factors are at play here: first is the mode of transmission. This virus cannot make you sick through your skin, or even through a scratch or a hangnail. It has to get right on your mucous membranes in your nose, mouth, or eyes–probably carried there via your own hands. So for surface transmission to happen in the real world it takes a lot of steps. A gob of stuff carrying a lot of viral particles would have to leave someone else’s body and land on a surface, then be touched by you (before it dries up), and then be transferred by you from your hands into your mouth or nose. In a nutshell, the chain of events that it would take to lead to surface transmission is just very unlikely. Even better, it can be interrupted by simply washing your hands.
The second factor is the “infectious dose.” That’s a science term for how many viral particles it takes to make you sick. Infectious dose varies for different viruses, and it’s not precisely understood for this virus yet. In the lab setting, they were trying to find even very tiny amounts of viral material in places where they knew it had been a few hours before (because yeah, they put it there on purpose). In the real world, your chances of getting enough of it from your Amazon package into your nose are just lower.
Snorting your Amazon boxes is still not recommended, however.
But what about the outbreaks in meat packing plants, surely that is evidence that we can catch COVID-19 from food??
The infections that have spread in meat packing plants have everything to do with the work environment in those plants, and nothing to do with the food itself. Meat packing plants are loud, fast-paced, dangerous places. Workers yell all day, work in close quarters, and generally do not get sick leave (which means they are incentivized to show up at work even if they’re feeling off). Meat packing workers also tend to have multiple dimensions of social disadvantage, which puts them at risk for contracting COVID-19 for a whole other list of reasons from crowded housing to low English-language proficiency.
And anyway, *even if* your meat processor sneezed directly on your T-bone… the heat from cooking it will be enough to inactivate SARS-CoV-2 (and just about everything else that might make you sick).
Info from the CDC about grocery shopping in the days of COVID
For more on infectious dose: