The scary thing about viruses, specifically COVID-19, is that they can sneak into our bodies without us even noticing—even if we are practicing many of the recommended guidelines set forth by government health agencies. “We’ve all learned a lot lately about social distancing and hand washing to stay healthy during this outbreak of COVID-19,” explains Charles Sutera, DMD, FAGD. “But there are a few Trojan horses that could still be bringing the virus into your home.”
We asked some of the nation’s top experts for insight into some of the less-expected ways novel coronavirus can creep into your home, and tips on how to prevent it from happening.
The easiest way to bring coronavirus into your home is leaving your home! The reason why the Centers for Disease Control is encouraging social distancing is because the most common way COVID-19 spreads is via person-to-person through tiny droplets. Every time you leave the house there is a risk you will come into contact with the novel coronavirus and bring it home with you. If you do have to leave, make sure to follow the CDC’s suggestions—stay at least 6 feet away from others, diligently practice hand hygiene, disinfect surfaces regularly, and wear a cloth face mask.
Your best friend, grandmother, cleaning lady, and handyman all have one thing in common: they could be carrying COVID-19 and be asymptomatic or not yet showing symptoms. So just because they believe they are completely healthy, doesn’t mean they are—and letting them into your home is putting your entire family at risk. “When COVID-19 is spreading in your area, everyone should limit close contact with individuals outside your household in indoor and outdoor spaces,” urges the CDC. “Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay away from others when possible, even if you have no symptoms.”
Whether you get your groceries yourself or have them delivered, Dana Hawkinson, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Kansas Health System, warns that they could be contaminated with COVID-19. “Most people know to wash or sanitize their hands when they leave the grocery store, but many of us don’t think about sanitizing the items we purchase,” he points out. Dr. Hawkinson says it’s a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables. What is the best way to do so? The CDC encourages simply washing produce under running water.
Other Food Packages
When it comes to other food items, Dr. Hawkinson points out that while there is not currently no evidence of transmission from grocery store items, you shouldn’t take any chances. “Wipe down containers before using them,” he urges.
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When you are outside of the house, you may want to avoid pulling out your phone altogether. Think about it. You pull your phone out at the store to show someone a picture or glance at your grocery list. Someone sneezes. Your phone could become contaminated. While Sharon Chekijian, MD, an emergency medicine doctor with Yale Medicine previously offered up tips on how to thoroughly clean your phone—which she suggests doing several times a day—she also encourages you to keep your phone to yourself. Also, “If you are out of the house and unsure if your phone is clean you should use speaker phone or Bluetooth devices to avoid placing the phone near your face until you can wipe it down as outlined.”
At the chance COVID-19 has snuck into your home—whether through a person or item—don’t forget to disinfect any surfaces it may have come into contact with. “Community members can practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks, and electronics with household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants that are appropriate for the surface, following label instructions. Labels contain instructions for safe and effective use of the cleaning product including precautions you should take when applying the product, such as wearing gloves and making sure you have good ventilation during use of the product,” instructs the CDC.
Mail or Packages
While the chances of contamination via delivery boxes is thought to be minimal, it’s better to be safe than sorry, urges Dr. Grimes. “Yes, this virus can live on surfaces (including cardboard) so it’s always prudent to wash your hands after handling something another person has passed to you,” she explains. However, “Keep in mind that the contents inside your envelope or the package you receive will not be infectious since those have been in the mail for days, it is the outside which can be contagious if it has viable droplets,” adds Maria Vila, DO, a family medicine specialist in Morristown, New Jersey and medical advisor for eMediHealth.
Anyone at Your Door
While most people are doing an excellent job of remembering the six foot rule when out in public, the easiest way to bring this virus into your home is to forget that rule when your doorbell rings, points out Jill Grimes, MD, Board-Certified Family Physician at UT Austin’s Student Health Services, and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook (May 5, 2020, Skyhorse Publishing). “When we open our front doors, if the person who rang the doorbell has not stepped back six feet—-boom—there’s your potential exposure,” she explains. If you can, opt for no-contact delivery, or make it clear to them that they need to keep their distance. “Think twice before you open that door, and ask the person to kindly set down their delivery and step back.”
While most of us probably aren’t walking into the bank these days, the ATM can seem like a safe alternative. After all, it requires no human interaction. However, before you start typing in your pin you might want to consider the fact that many other fingers have touched those keys before you. According to studies, ATM and credit card terminals are covered with germs. “Bank online whenever possible,” encourages the CDC. “If you must visit the bank, use the drive-through ATM if one is available. Clean the ATM keyboard with a disinfecting wipe before you use it. When you are done, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you get home.”
The Gas Pump
If you aren’t careful at the gas station, you might be fueling up more than just your car with gas—the CDC warns that COVID-19 could be lurking on the pump, buttons, and touch screen. “If available, use gloves or disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them,” they suggest. “After fueling, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds when you get home or somewhere with soap and water.”
After the news that a Bronx tiger tested positive for novel coronavirus, experts are encouraging the public to keep their kitty cats indoors during self-isolation. The British Veterinary Association has declared that animals “can act as fomites”—objects that can become contaminated with infectious organisms—and that the virus could temporarily live on their fur and then transmit to someone who is petting it. “For pet owners who have COVID-19 or who are self-isolating we are recommending that you keep your cat indoors if possible, during that time,” the BVA said in a statement. “The virus could be on their fur in the same way it is on other surfaces, such as tables and doorknobs.”
Your Used Gloves
While many people are wearing gloves along with cloth masks to the store, they may do more harm than good—and some experts maintain they are unnecessary. “I don’t see any point in wearing gloves,” says Joseph Vinetz, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist. “We still have to wash her hands and we don’t get infected by touching things,” he points out. For example, regardless of whether you are wearing gloves or not and you come into contact with the virus, if you touch your face the result will still be the same. Even more, is that if you take them off incorrectly, you could be contaminating your hands with the virus.
Your Used Mask
Using a cloth mask while out in public, as suggested by the CDC, can help stop the spread of COVID-19. However, unless you use it correctly, it can also spread the virus to you. The government agency recommends regularly cleaning your cloth mask in the washing machine. Also, they explain that it is crucial that you take off the mask correctly and practice hand hygiene. “Individuals should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash hands immediately after removing,” they state.
It can be difficult for younger people to understand why social distancing is so crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps they are too young to understand the six-feet rule or simply love defying their parents’ instructions (which kids love to do!) it is important to keep an eye on the under-18 age group if we want to end the health crisis. “While school is out, children should not have in-person playdates with children from other households. If children are playing outside their own homes, it is essential that they remain six feet from anyone who is not in their own household,” the CDC explains. “To help children maintain social connections while social distancing, help your children have supervised phone calls or video chats with their friends.”
According to some experts, COVID-19 can survive on the bottom of your shoe for up to five days, depending on the material of your shoes and other factors, such as temperature. While there have been no reported cases of the virus being transmitted this way, “keep your shoes in a separate location or wipe the bottom with disinfecting wipes when you return from outside the home,” suggests Leann Poston, MD, InvigorMedical.com.
If you are a nail biter, there is no better time to quit, urges Dr. Sutera. “Nail biting serves germs directly into your body via your mouth and is also damaging to your tooth enamel,” he points out. While we all know a minimum of 20 seconds is what it takes to wash our hands successfully, he adds that handwashing is pretty ineffective for cleaning deep under the fingernails. “Our nails have nooks, crannies, and crevices that you can’t clean effectively unless you use a small brush.” It also helps to keep your fingernails trimmed short, and clean under the nail periodically with manicure tools.
Your Towels and Sponges
When was the last time you swapped out your sponges or washed your hand towels? “When you go out in public, and someone is coughing or sneezing, your natural instinct is to wash your hands and shower as soon as you get home,” explains Dr. Sutera. “Ridding yourself of germs before coming in the house is a great strategy, but just remember the loofa, sponge, the nail brush, and towels you use all collect germs each time you wash.” These items can become a mini epicenter of germs after a few uses and spread germs to you or other people in your home. “Be mindful of sterilizing these items routinely and changing them out frequently,” he suggests.
While our clothing is a barrier that prevents germs from reaching our skin easily, they do collect a significant amount of germs in the material, claims Dr. Sutera. “Be sure to wash your clothes frequently and avoid sitting on furniture or beds with clothes that have been exposed to public furniture.”
Dr. Vila points out that if you wear eyeglasses or sunglasses, they might shelter your eyes from the virus. However, there is the potential for virus particles to have landed on your glasses. “Consider disinfecting them when you get home,” she says.
Your Takeout Food
While we may want to support our local restaurants and there are no cases reported of COVID-19 being transmitted by food, you should still be cautious, warns Dr. Vila. “Before people become ill with COVD-19 and experience symptoms they are still very contagious, so it is impossible to know if the cook or the delivery person is sick but doesn’t realize it yet and could’ve contaminated your food packaging,” she points out. For example, someone may have sneezed on your pizza box and the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours. “So you must wash your hands and be very careful after touching the box.”
It isn’t called “dirty money” for nothing. Dr. Poston advises paying for everything electronically or using a credit card during the pandemic, just in case your money has been contaminated. “If at all possible, do not use cash!” she instructs.
Many of us have a bad habit of setting our purses down in bathrooms, on the shopping cart, or while we are paying. Because there is a risk of contamination, Dr. Poston strongly suggests leaving your purse in a foyer area, “so that you can grab it as you leave and not bring it into the home or do not use a purse when going places,” she says. “Make sure that you do not put a dirty purse on a counter.”
And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 40 Things You Should Never Touch Due to Coronavirus.