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Coronavirus: Should I disinfect groceries before bringing them into the house?

COVID-19 questions about the grocery store
ABOVE: COVID-19 questions about the grocery store

As the novel coronavirus continues to sweep across the country, grocery shopping has become one of the most nerve-wracking — yet necessary — activities for Canadians.

Some provincial governments have begun to provide guidelines to grocery stores to ensure the spaces remain as safe as possible during the pandemic. On Sunday, the government in British Columbia ordered that all stores must have hand sanitizer stations, provide clean carry-out bags and enforce physical distancing measures.

However, several questions remain: should I wear a mask or gloves to the store? Can the virus live on the box of crackers, or the jug or carton of milk in my cart? Should I only use debit or credit cards to pay?

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Unfortunately, doctors are still trying to pin down answers to several of the questions swirling around COVID-19.

A study published in March determined the new coronavirus can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for as long as two to three days.

For this study, researchers used a nebulizer device to put samples of the virus into the air, imitating what might happen if an infected person coughed or made the virus airborne some other way.

Getting teens on-board with social distancing
Getting teens on-board with social distancing

They found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

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“We do know that the coronavirus can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours,” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

For this reason, he believes it could be possible that “if someone with COVID-19 coughed or sneezed on your groceries, there could be coronavirus on them.”

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However, Kwan warns that he doesn’t have “definitive answers” to these questions because much about the virus remains unknown.

“As a precaution, especially if there are vulnerable people in the household, wiping down [or] washing the groceries might not be a bad idea,” Kwan told Global News.

Dr. Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, also warned that experts “just don’t know” enough about the novel coronavirus yet to have definitive answers to such questions.

B.C. woman’s firsthand account of COVID-19
B.C. woman’s firsthand account of COVID-19

“It’s probably the case that it would be difficult to pick up something on your hands,” Janes told Global News.

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The virus is still understood to be transmitted from person to person, “either directly from one person to another [by] expelling the virus [through] sneezing and coughing, or it gets on your hands and then you touch a surface [that] a lot of people are touching — like elevator buttons,” he said.

“That the virus could live for a long time on cardboard and then somehow be picked up and transmitted to a person … the risk is probably low.”

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Scientists are “rushing” to learn more about the virus and how it spreads, but until then, Janes advises everyone to follow proper hygiene.

“At present, most public health authorities will say [that] contracting the virus if you wash your hands [and] follow all proper hygiene … the risk is probably fairly low,” he said.
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Practically speaking, Dr. Anna Banerji recommends that for anything that comes in a box — like cereal or cookies — you take the items out and dispose of the box, instead of bringing it into the house.

Experts answer viewers’ COVID-19 questions, part 6
Experts answer viewers’ COVID-19 questions, part 6

“You can take it out of the container it comes in, if you’re worried about it,” said Banerji, an expert in communicable diseases and professor of Indigenous and refugee health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Put it in the recycling and then wash your hands.”

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Major chains like Real Canadian Superstore and Walmart offer delivery services in many parts of Canada, while local, independent stores in cities like Toronto and Vancouver have drop-off services for shoppers, too.

READ MORE: What is an essential service? After groceries, it depends where you live in Canada

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Due to high demand, however, some customers can expect to experience longer than usual wait times; in some cases, days. Many stores have also seen a significant increase in store traffic as people have been “panic shopping” — something experts urge against.

For a full list of grocery delivery services available across Canada, click here.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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— With files from Global News’ Sean Boynton and the Associated Press

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca