Your Top COVID-19 Questions, Answered

Whether public laundry is safe, should we sanitize our shoes, should we wipe down our groceries and more

By Sean Craig
March 28, 2020

Your Top COVID-19 Questions, Answered

Whether public laundry is safe, should we sanitize our shoes, should we wipe down our groceries and more

By Sean Craig
Mar 28, 2020
Graphic by Dash Dixon for The Capital
Graphic by Dash Dixon for The Capital

Your Top COVID-19 Questions, Answered

Whether public laundry is safe, should we sanitize our shoes, should we wipe down our groceries and more

By Sean Craig
March 28, 2020
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Your Top COVID-19 Questions, Answered
Graphic by Dash Dixon for The Capital

Earlier this week, The Capital put out a call for readers to submit tips and story ideas about COVID-19. You responded with a wave of questions on how to best keep safe in our unfamiliar new reality: Whether to wipe down groceries after purchase, if it was safe to order takeout and whether shoes could be vectors for disease. Below, we tallied up all the top questions and found the best available evidence to answer them.

Should I use shared or reusable grocery bags?

Out of extra precaution, some grocers have banned reusable bags for the time being. Save-on-Foods is one of them, and is offering free disposable paper and plastic bags. As part of the Loblaws parent company, Shoppers Drug Mart is also offering free plastic bags. It is best to check with grocers before shopping what their current policies are. Whether or not reusable or single-use bags are safer is a subject of debate. Research funded by the plastics industry found reusable bags can harbour bacteria, especially since their owners rarely wash them. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have argued single use plastics can still pick up bacteria and viruses during their trip along the supply chain, from manufacturing to transport to storage. Research by the US National Institutes of Health found that the novel coronavirus can survive on plastic for as long as three days.

Grocery stores have been ordered to increase their cleaning protocols, however, so checkout stations are subject to more cleaning than usual. Save on Foods, for example, is spraying and wiping self-checkout counters after each use and is in the process of ordering Plexiglas shields for its pharmacy counters and grocery checkouts.

Are there any risks of me catching COVID-19 if I order takeout food or delivery?

According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's no evidence that COVID-19 has been spread through food, and the “poor survivability” of coronaviruses on surfaces makes the risk of transmitting it through food or packaging, when it has been shipped over a period or days or weeks, “likely very low.”

The coronavirus is mainly spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets and so the risk of infection through takeout food is very low. However, since the virus can remain on surfaces for hours to days at a time, the CDC notes that “some spread through this route may also be occurring.” Since March 20, all restaurants and food companies have been ordered by the BCgovernment to move to takeout or delivery — or close altogether — and must follow orders by the Public Health Officer to practice heightened cleaning protocols such as frequent hand washing and cleaning of high volume surfaces.

In the Washington Post, Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, cites a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows the virus can remain on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to three days. But he points out that the viral concentration on these surfaces decreases quickly.

Moreover, there are several factors necessary for transmission, including touching the exact spot on the package where the virus is and then touching your face or mouth. Allen writes, “the virus on the package is a necessary component, but it alone is not sufficient to get you sick.”

Should I wipe down or clean my groceries after bringing them home?

Health Canada says it is unlikely that people will be infected with coronavirus through food. The federal government adds that scientists here and around the world are monitoring the food industry and supply chain to see if any major concerns arise, but none have yet.

However, as with any indoor gathering place, grocery stores are not immune to COVID-19. A 48-year old grocery store department manager in Oshawa, Ontario died this week of the virus. Stores in Toronto and Nova Scotia closed after employees tested positive. Grocery workers in parts of the US — in Denver, in Monroe, Washington, in Portland, Oregon, in New York City — have also tested positive. Concerns have also hit the grocery supply chain — the Canadian Food Inspection Agency partially closed production at an Alberta meat packing plant on Friday after an employee tested positive. Facilities in Mississippi, South Dakota and Argentina have also had positive test cases.

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk. The advice from Harvard’s Joseph Allen: “Shop when you need to (keeping six feet from other customers) and load items into your cart or basket. Keep your hands away from your face while shopping, and wash them as soon as you’re home. Put away your groceries, and then wash your hands again. If you wait even a few hours before using anything you just purchased, most of the virus that was on any package will be significantly reduced. If you need to use something immediately, and want to take extra precautions, wipe the package down with a disinfectant.”

According to Health Canada, cooking meats to safe internal temperatures will kill coronaviruses. A guide to temperatures for various meats is available here. As a general rule, the BC Centre for Disease Control says cooking and reheating foods to just 74 degrees Celsius will kill coronaviruses.

You should already be washing any fresh produce before using it, to prevent E. coli and salmonella. Keep doing it. If you have a compromised immune system, you may want to consider purchasing pre-packaged produce as it will likely be subject to less touching in the store.

Before you prepare food, wash your hands with soap or an alcohol hand rub for at least 20 seconds. Keep separate cutting boards for produce and meat, poultry or fish. You should also wash your hands before and after handling raw meat, poultry or fish and wash any plates, utensils or boards that have touched raw meat, poultry or fish.

Should I be cleaning my shoes or clothes I take outside?

According to major health authorities including the Centres for Disease Control, if no one in your household has tested positive for the virus or shown any symptoms, there is no urgent need to wash your clothes or clean your shoes beyond what is normal.

If someone in your home is ill or shows symptoms, it is advised that you wear disposable gloves while handling their laundry and throw the gloves out as soon as you're done with them. Clean your hands when you take them off, as well. Do not shake the laundry of someone ill, to avoid the risk of spreading the virus in the air. You can wash an ill person’s clothes with other items — just use detergent, which kills the virus, and set the water temperature to the highest possible setting.

Clean and disinfect laundry basket or hampers after they come in to contact with a sick person’s clothing. The American Chemistry Council, Health Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency have all published lists of disinfectants that can fight the virus. The ACA list, notable

Overall, the risk of transmission on clothes, fabrics and shoes is minimal, with a handful of exceptions. First, if someone else handled your clothing or shoes. Second, if you’re a healthcare worker or a worker in an essential service environment that involves touching lots of surfaces or where there is significant human traffic (a grocery store worker, for example). In those cases, it’s wise to wash clothing as soon as you get home.

Lastly, if you have been out in a well-populated public place, such as a grocery store, or you learn people around you have not been following social distancing guidelines, you should wash your clothes.

Is it safe for me to use a shared laundromat?

Laundromats and dry cleaners have been dubbed essential services throughout the country, notably by the BC, Ontario and Quebec governments. As part of this order, they should be operating with enhanced cleaning protocols.

While, according to the aforementioned New England Journal of Medicine study, coronavirus can live on plastic and metal surfaces for up to three days (buttons and zippers are made of those things, for example) the risk of transmission through clothes is minimal.

When you do go to do laundry, the CDC recommends washing clothes with the warmest possible water. Use detergent and, where possible, bleach (for whites that’s easy, but you may need to pick up some colour-safe bleach if you want to be extra vigilant with your darks). After washing, put clothes at the highest temperature in the dryer for at least 45 minutes.

There’s a run on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks? Should I be stocking up on these things?

According to the provincial government, the province’s supply chain is stable and grocery stores will still be able to stock up on essential goods. In the meantime, a new Provincial Supply Chain Coordination Unit was established this week to curb the resale of essential goods and to put limits on the number of goods that can be purchased at once.

The reason you’re seeing empty shelves is because of panic buying. In fact, hoarding and panic buying can actually harm the most vulnerable people in society. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney noted this week that food banks and programs and charitable missions have face hurdles getting supplies because of hoarding.

Health Canada has published a list of goods you should have on hand, especially in the event that you become ill and have to quarantine. Things included are a thermometer, hand and dish soap, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever, dried pasta and rice, pet food, and feminine hygiene products. Yes, toilet paper is on the list, just don’t go crazy.

With files from Tori Marlan

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