It’s hard to miss the news headlines or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates about a wide-spreading pathogen, the coronavirus known as COVID-19. With travel restrictions rising and health officials advising the public to practice social distancing, many people are concerned about how contagious this virus is and what they can do to prevent themselves from getting sick.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health authorities currently are working together to help keep the public informed and safe, but they are still investigating this new virus and its pathogenic characteristics, symptoms and rate of infection. As we continue to learn more about the person-to person spread of the new coronavirus, thoughts about best practices for safe food handling may come to mind. Let’s talk a bit more about this virus and how routine hygienic practices like handwashing are at the forefront of prevention.
What is the new coronavirus?
The coronavirus disease that is currently circulating is called COVID-19. The disease has now been labeled as a pandemic due to its worldwide spread and impacts. The CDC defines a pandemic as a global outbreak of disease that occurs when a new virus infects and passes between people persistently. Due to there being minimal to no pre-existing immunity among the human population against the new coronavirus, it is now spreading rapidly and exponentially worldwide.
The COVID-19 virus is part of a family of other coronaviruses. These viruses can cause illness in animals and humans. The new coronavirus was first discovered during a disease outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The vast majority of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus are in mainland China. However, there are growing instances of infection on other continents and reported cases—including deaths—in the United States as well.
The symptoms of COVID-19 are somewhat flu-like or common-cold like in most individuals. They may include fever, fatigue, body aches, nasal congestion, a runny nose, a sore throat and diarrhea. According to the WHO, the majority of people that have COVID-19 (about 80%) recover without needing special treatment. However, one out of every six people who get COVID-19 becomes critically ill and develops difficulty breathing. People who may be immunocompromised, who are older, and/or who have upper respiratory or heart conditions are noted as being “high-risk” and may be more likely to develop more serious symptoms and need medical attention.
How does the coronavirus spread, and what can I do to have the best possible chance to stay healthy?
COVID-19 spreads mainly through person-to-person contact. Thus, the first line of defense in germ transfer prevention is minimizing gathering in groups of all sizes. In particular, this means avoiding large groups and crowds, avoiding being in close contact with people who could be sick, and avoiding gathering with people who are at high risk for infection.
Specifically, the spreading concern is prominently linked to respiratory expelling via a cough, sneeze or other methods of releasing respiratory droplets that can carry the virus from one person to the next. Uninfected individuals who breathe in droplets from an infected individual can become ill. Thus, close contact (within three feet) with infected individuals should be avoided. Infected individuals should stay away from others as much as possible, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, and should also keep their hands clean to help avoid spreading the virus to others.
Handwashing—during food preparation, before and after touching others, and before and after using the bathroom, going outside, and handling potentially germ-laden objects—is an excellent preventative practice for both healthy and infected individuals. Handwashing throughout our daily routines helps us to avoid germ transfer between ourselves and others. Hands touch more surfaces than we realize, and they can carry any germs they encounter from one person or place to the next. The CDC advises that proper handwashing includes scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds with water (cold or warm) and soap to eliminate germs. In some cases, hand sanitizer (with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent) can also be used to keep hands clean.
If you are well but could have somehow come in contact with an infected person, keeping your hands clean as you interact with others (like during food preparation) is very important. You should also aim to avoid touching your face, eyes and nose. These are prime germ entry points that can lead to viral infection.
Researchers have established that the COVID-19 virus does not transfer well from surfaces to people, but it is still able to stay alive on surfaces for a few hours up to a few days. Enter another safe food-handling rule—keeping surfaces clean. Surfaces—including kitchen counters, utensils, and other food preparation devices—that are cleaned with antimicrobial disinfectant will kill germs, including coronavirus. While there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted via food, it is not entirely impossible given the characteristics of the coronavirus family. Thus, avoiding infected individuals and keeping hands and surfaces clean are very important public health practices as authorities look to more firmly establish the overall viability of this virus.
What is the best way to buy groceries and meals?
While food has not been found to be a transmission vector for coronavirus, it is important to note that restaurants and grocery stores should be practicing food-handling hygiene protocols to avoid transferring germs such as the coronavirus year-round. These practices include requiring employees not to report to work while sick, to keep hands cleaned while handling food, to wear protective gear while handling food (aprons, gloves, hairnets, etc.) and to keep all surfaces that contact food clean. News outlets have reported that many restaurants, stores and delivery services have ramped up these protocols to further combat COVID-19.
That said, going into a crowded grocery store may not be the best idea if you’re high-risk—or even if you’re not. Frequently visiting high-traffic, high-germ-transfer locations like large food stores could cause you to come into contact with the virus. Using online grocery shopping apps, having groceries delivered, or using a curb-side pick-up option are all good alternatives. If these options are not available where you live, try shopping in smaller, less crowded markets or during “non-peak” hours for shopping.
If none of these options will work for you, you can still practice good hygiene and mitigate your chances of coming into contact with the virus. First, avoid touching your face with your hands while you shop—this practice helps prevent germ transfer between surfaces and your body. Nicely, many stores have hand sanitizer stations at the front door and throughout the store for patrons to use—because even when we try, we may still touch our faces from time to time. Finally, avoid close contact (within six feet) with any people in the store who are sneezing or coughing and be sure to clean your hands by washing them or using hand sanitizer when you leave or as soon as you get home.
As for using food delivery apps for restaurant menu items, the people who are preparing and delivering food should be using the same safe food-handling practices as those who are in the restaurant serving meals. Having food delivered will minimize person-to-person contact, which is helpful for decreasing germ and sickness transfer. However, preparing meals at home is the best way to minimize contact.
It’s important to note that food production suppliers and companies are not reporting any shortage of food supplies across the country—so while you shop, it’s not necessary to hoard food or other grocery store items. It’s more important to minimize trips to stores to avoid contact with others. So, instead of going to the store several times a week, try to get enough groceries for one full week, buy more healthy shelf-stable items to avoid spoilage, and refrigerate foods properly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stated that it is monitoring our food supply situation closely in collaboration with federal and state partners. The agency is also ready to assist in government-wide efforts to ensure all Americans have access to food in times of need.
What are health authorities doing to help?
The FDA, CDC and the WHO are regularly posting updates regarding the spread of the disease and how to handle potential infection. In addition to doing what we’ve noted above, you should visit these sites for the newest and most reliable information about COVID-19. The CDC recommendations for “Prevention and Treatment” provide a great go-to source for reducing your and your family’s risk of illness.
While health authorities work on developing a vaccine and establishing treatment support measures for infected individuals, it is crucial to remain properly educated about how to thwart this virus’s spread. We understand that the appearance of a new worldwide illness can be quite alarming, but following these everyday hygiene practices and minimizing person-to-person contact will aid you greatly in avoiding illness and keeping others well, too.