Can the Coronavirus Spread Through Mail? What to Know About Online Packages and COVID-19 Risk

With many store shelves completely cleared of cleaning supplies and other essentials due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, more people are resorting to online shopping (that is, if they hadn't already been avid Amazon Prime or Instacart users already). The surge is so large that even online retailers are finding it hard to keep up with the ever-growing demand: According to one recent CNBC report, same-day and next-day delivery services offered by Amazon, Instacart, and Walmart are experiencing delays in some areas of the country in response to the public health crisis. 

Also worth noting: online shopping can add an extra layer of coronavirus protection, since it limits direct contact with a large number of people (hello, social distancing)—but, while it certainly seems like the safer option, could online shopping lead to coronavirus spreading through mail and packages?

The answer: For the most part, no. Early on in the outbreak, the World Health Organization set out to dispel myths surrounding coronavirus—and the worry that coronavirus could travel from China via packages was one of them. According to the WHO, "People receiving packages from China are not at risk of contracting the new coronavirus."

But what about mail from other countries or US domestic deliveries from areas where COVID-19 has been reported? In a Q and A, the organization states: "The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low."

That's not to say, however, that the coronavirus can't be found on packages ever: One March 11 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus can live up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. But, according to Joseph Vinetz, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist, that doesn't mean it will infect you. "Detection does not mean transmissible," he says. 

Alan Koff, MD, chief fellow of the infectious disease program at Yale School of Medicine, adds that the conditions packages go through may also make it more difficult for the virus to survive. "It is likely that the temperature outside and the length of time the package is in shipping may impact the survival of the virus on that surface," he says—that's in contrast to the lab settings viruses are usually tested in. All that's to say, of course, that even if coronavirus coronavirus did make it on to a package, it would likely not make it to your door.

While contracting coronavirus through a package alone is very unlikely, there's another thing that factors into your coronavirus risk with receiving mail: the health of mail carriers and package handlers. That's because, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the primary way the coronavirus spreads is via direct contact with the respiratory droplets of those who are showing symptoms. Theoretically, if your mail carrier is ill, they can pass the virus to you.

That's the real threat—one that may be more than theoretical. Letter carriers interviewed by ProPublica reported that they are being pressured to deliver the mail despite developing symptoms, and some say they're working with little or no hand sanitizer. That said, the United States Postal Service released a memo recently, per the Federal News Network, outlining their coronavirus policies, which includes urging employees to stay home if they feel sick. The memo also mentioned a social distancing policy, urging carriers to maintain a three- to six-foot distance between themselves and customers whenever possible.

Meantime, workers in a Queens, New York, Amazon warehouse learned March 18 that someone in their facility had tested positive for COVD-19, according to a report in The Atlantic. It is believed to be the first confirmed case among the company's hourly warehouse workers.

Ultimately, while there is a very small chance for coronavirus to be transmitted via packages or mail carriers, it's highly unlikely. "I don't believe mail or packages should be a major concern for individuals," Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. "This is not going to be a major route of illness."

If you're still worried, follow the CDC's general advice for protecting yourself from the coronavirus and wash your hands thoroughly after handling the mail.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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