Experts Explain 8 Ways Coronavirus *Doesn’t* Spread

You can stop Lysoling your packages now.

by JR Thorpe
Two women in masks sit at a park. This article debunks myths about how coronavirus spreads with doct...
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The coronavirus can seem like it's sneaking up on you: on your car door handle, on your PostMates delivery, on the hands of that permanently sticky toddler who lives next door. But in reality, it's more like it's hiding in plain sight, in respiratory droplets (aka what comes out when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks). When it comes to how COVID-19 spreads, there are a lot of myths and half-truths that need to be debunked.

"There is still much unknown about the duration and methods of transmission," Dr. Robert Mordkin, M.D., U.S. medical director for medical testing organization LetsGetChecked, tells Bustle. "However, it is clear that adhering to current guidelines works to decrease spread." Social distancing, good hand hygiene, and face masks work. Avoiding mosquitoes and 5G do not.

Scientists know that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is mostly transmitted through breath, coughing, and sneezing, even in people who have no symptoms. It's not transmitted by infected rats (like the bubonic plague), mosquitoes (like malaria), badly preserved food (like food poisoning bugs), or 5G networks (like nothing ever). Go wash your hands, then let's get into how the SARS-CoV-2 bug does and does not move through the world.

Myth 1: Disinfecting Everything Is Your Main Line Of Defense

Scientists disagree about how long COVID-19 can survive on surfaces. While a study in New England Journal of Medicine showed that it could live in small quantities on stainless steel and other materials for up to several days, one expert noted in The Lancet that these were laboratory conditions and there often wasn't enough surviving virus to get someone sick. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that traces of COVID-19 were found on a cruise ship 17 days after infected people left.

Researchers believe that the main way you actually get infected with COVID is by breathing in virus droplets and aerosols when you're in close contact with others. Wearing a mask whenever you're within 6 feet of others, plus washing your hands consistently, can minimize that risk. Disinfecting high contact surfaces, like doorknobs or shared bathrooms, is a good practice, but you can interrupt the flow of germs to your body by simply washing your hands and wearing a mask.

"Simple measures like face masks, social distancing, increased testing in hot spots, and contact tracing are effective in controlling the spread of COVID," Dr. Neal Shipley, M.D, emergency physician and regional medical director of Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care, tells Bustle. Your pocket Lysol doesn't mean you can leave the mask at home.

Myth 2: COVID-19 Can Spread Through Food

In the beginning of the pandemic, you might have been furiously soaping your farmer's market haul, instead of giving it a casual rinse. Experts say you probably don't need to do that.

"I think this may have started with fear of take-out containers but then somehow migrated to food," Dr. John A. Sellick, D.O., professor in the department of medicine at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, tells Bustle. "Containers or bags could possibly become contaminated, which is why we encourage hand hygiene, but I would be surprised if any cases have been transmitted this way."

It's difficult to know how the coronavirus survives on surfaces, since a lot of the studies have happened in hospitals or laboratories. The NEJM study said it could survive on cardboard for 24 hours, but The Lancet noted that in studies of other coronaviruses in real-life conditions, the cells only survived for one to six hours.

Dr. Sellick explains that the virus is respiratory, so it'll primarily be transmitted by close encounters with people who have the illness, not on the surface of apple pie (unless they've coughed on it and handed it to you, which, rude).

Myth 3: Holding Your Breath Will Keep You From Catching It

Think you can prevent yourself from getting COVID-19 by holding your breath every time you walk past someone without a mask in the grocery store? Think again. "Breath holding is silly," Dr. Sellick says. "If the patient is coughing, droplets can get in through your eyes by way of the tear ducts." This is why face shields that cover the eyes might be better for preventing the spread of and exposure to coronavirus than masks. But masks alone work very well when it comes to stopping virus spread.

Myth 4: If You Can Hold Your Breath, You Can't Transmit COVID

There's a myth circulating that if you can hold your breath for more than 10 seconds, you don't have coronavirus. The thinking goes that shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID; ergo, if you have it, you won't be able to hold your breath. But a lot of people with the illness will have no symptoms at all. "As many as 40% may be asymptomatic, but still can spread it to family members and to each other," Dr. Shipley tells Bustle. You can hold your breath all you like, but if you're infected, you can still transmit COVID to others.

Myth 5: It Can Spread Through Contact With Insects

Mosquitoes are annoying as hell in summer, but coronavirus isn't their fault. "Mosquitoes (or other insects and arachnids) are not 'permissive' [capable of letting a virus replicate] for SARS-CoV-2, as only specific species can become infected," Dr. Sellick says. "Humans happen to be the unlucky species for SARS-CoV-2."

Myth 6: You Can Catch COVID From 5G

Asking epidemiologists about this myth — which claims alternately that 5G mobile networks and towers are spreading coronavirus through the air, or are weakening people's immune systems — tends to get some unprintable responses. But just in case anybody on your news feed is still spreading this conspiracy, 5G is a mobile network that possesses absolutely no way of spreading pathogens or germs, and many countries with no 5G capability have coronavirus outbreaks. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that the conspiracy theory was spread largely by fake news websites who promoted it on social media.

Myth 7: You Can Catch It From Mail

While you may have been worried about your online shopping packages, the World Health Organization says that it's pretty unlikely shipping parcels will carry coronavirus. Packages traveling internationally are exposed to many different temperatures and conditions during transit, as you'll know if you've ever received a package of chocolate that's melted together. That's not ideal for the survival of germs.

Myth 8: Shoes Can Transmit The Virus

Having your roommates take their shoes off at the front door is a good policy if you like having clean floors, but it doesn't mean much for bringing COVID into your house.

"While there is evidence that the virus can live in the air for up to three hours in aerosolized form, most of the respiratory spread of the virus happens through respiratory droplets which fall and settle on surfaces (like the ground)," Dr. Julia Blank, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center, tells Bustle.

The World Health Organization notes that the risk of COVID-19 being spread on shoes from the outside world is "very low." If you live in a house with crawling kids or seriously immunocompromised people, you might consider leaving them outside. Otherwise, you're not likely to get sick.


Dr. Julia Blank, M.D.

Dr. Robert Mordkin, M.D.

Dr. John Sellick, D.O.

Dr. Neal Shipley, M.D.

Studies cited:

Ahmed, W., Vidal-Alaball, J., Downing, J., López Seguí, F. (2020) COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data. J Med Internet Res 2020;22(5):e19458

Goldman E. (2020). Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites. The Lancet. Infectious diseases, 20(8), 892–893.

Lavezzo, E., Franchin, E., Ciavarella, C. et al. (2020) Suppression of a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in the Italian municipality of Vo’. Nature.

Sahoo, S., Padhy, S. K., Ipsita, J., Mehra, A., & Grover, S. (2020). Demystifying the myths about COVID-19 infection and its societal importance. Asian journal of psychiatry, 54, 102244. Advance online publication.

van Doremalen, N., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., Tamin, A., Harcourt, J. L., Thornburg, N. J., Gerber, S. I., Lloyd-Smith, J. O., de Wit, E., & Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. The New England journal of medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567.