CDC Update on COVID-19 Surface Transmission

There has been some recent confusion about whether or not surface transmission still remains a potential risk for catching Covid-19 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made some edits to its website last week. Some social media sites and news outlets had suggested the agency had downgraded its warnings and that surface transmission was no longer a concern. The CDC issued a news release to clarify that indirect contact from contaminated surfaces, or fomite transmission is not the primary mode of transmission, but still remains a potential risk.  

As stated in the recent update from the CDC:

“The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person. Based on data from lab studies on COVID-19 and what we know about similar respiratory diseases, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Droplets sprayed out by an infected person can either land directly on surfaces or can be transmitted to surfaces like doorknobs. The virus can then spread if a person touches a contaminated object or surface and then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose with now-contaminated hands.

The main transmission mechanism, however, appears to be close contact with someone who has the virus, like talking face-to-face or sitting nearby in an indoor setting. Those situations expose people to enough of what is referred to as “a viral load” to become infected.

So does this mean we can catch COVID-19 from touching a phone or doorknob? The answer is yes, and why you need to continue to continuously wipe down surfaces with disinfectant, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your face.

How Surface (Fomite) Transmission Works

Fomite transmission happens when an infected person coughs or sneezes on their hands. Some of the droplets may splash onto a nearby surface, or the person spreads the germs by touching a faucet or countertop before washing their hands.

Studies show that COVID-19 can last up to three days on plastic and steel, but once it lands on a surface, the amount of viable virus begins to disintegrate in a matter of hours. That means a droplet on a surface is far more infectious right after a sneeze, but not so much after a few days later. You have to touch the contaminated surface, pick up enough of the virus on your hands, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you get enough viral load, you will get infected.

According to Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, the last step in that causal chain is touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your contaminated hand, so the best way to make sure the chain is broken is washing your hands.

Shopping Mall in Wenzhou, China 

In a research letter issued by the CDC (Indirect Virus Transmission in Cluster of COVID-19 Cases, Wenzhou, China, 2020), an outbreak associated with a shopping mall in Wenzhou, China, may have been fueled by fomite transmission. In January, seven workers who shared an office in a shopping mall became ill when one of their co-workers returned from Wuhan.

The mall was closed, and public health officials tracked two dozen more sick people, including several women who had shopped at the mall, as well as their friends. None of them had come into contact with the original sick office workers. The researchers speculated that a women’s restroom or the mall elevators had been the source of transmission.

 Hand Washing

“Hand washing is important not only for fomite transmission but also for person-to-person transmission,” said Dr. Daniel Winetsky, a postdoctoral fellow in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia University. “The respiratory droplets we produce when speaking, coughing, and sneezing fall mostly onto our hands, and can fall onto other people’s hands if they are within six feet from us.”

The bottom line is that the best way to protect ourselves from catching COVID-19, whether it’s from fomite transmission or from close human contact, is still washing our hands and not touching our faces.

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