Email is the most common form of written communication in most workplaces. However, Ontario’s provincial and municipal institutions still receive the vast majority of their FOI requests by mail or courier, and correspondence back-and-forth with the requestor and other interested parties (such as affected persons) is often conducted by mail as well. So, I thought it would be useful to look into the question of whether COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, can be caught by handling mail or parcels.
I found three helpful articles which are listed below. Together, these articles suggest that the risk of catching COVID-19 from parcels or regular mail is minimal, except perhaps in the situation where the outside of a parcel is contaminated with COVID-19 (for example, by being sneezed or coughed on) immediately before it is received. Additionally, there are some simple, common-sense precautions that may help to further reduce any risk of contagion.
Don’t panic about shopping, getting delivery or accepting packages by Joseph G. Allen, Washington Post (Opinion), March 26, 2020 at 8:10 a.m. EDT
This article provides helpful guidance for bringing home groceries and other items from the store and for handling incoming mail. It notes that the virus degrades quickly, being detectable for perhaps up to 24 hours on a surface such as cardboard. (The implication would seem to be that it’s unlikely that a contagious dose of the virus could survive inside a package that has been in transit for more than 24 hours.) According to the article, the “worst case” is if the outside of the package or letter is contaminated with the virus just before being delivered:
In the worst-case scenario, a visibly sick driver picks up your package from the truck, walks to your front door and sneezes into their hands or directly on the package immediately before handing it to you.
However, even in this situation, the article notes you can break the “causal chain”:
You can leave that cardboard package at your door for a few hours — or bring it inside and leave it right inside your door, then wash your hands again. If you’re still concerned there was any virus on the package, you could wipe down the exterior with a disinfectant, or open it outdoors and put the packaging in the recycling can. (Then wash your hands again.)
In summary, this article appears to indicate that if there’s any significant risk of catching COVID-19 from a letter or package, the risk would appear to come from a recent contamination of the outside of the package or envelope, and this can be dealt with by leaving the package to sit for a few hours before handling it.
United States Postal Service Statement on Coronavirus, March 22, 2020
Next, as noted in this statement from the United States Postal Service (USPS):
Importantly, the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html), the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses), as well as the Surgeon General have indicated that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.
Specifically, according to the World Health Organization, “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 been exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.” And according to the CDC, “in general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures. Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.”
This again indicates that the risk of catching COVID-19 from mail or packages appears to be low. However, I did notice that both the statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) and from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) made explicit reference to the temperatures that a package has been exposed to. The WHO’s statement explicitly refers to a package being “exposed to different conditions and temperatures” and the CDC’s statement mentions “ambient temperatures”. This may suggest a concern that the virus may remain viable longer at lower temperatures. Leaving the item alone in an indoor environment for a few hours may address this concern and would be consistent with the guidance provided in the Washington Post Opinion article above.
Coronavirus can live on surfaces for days. But it can’t travel through the mail, experts say by N’dea Yancey-Bragg, USA Today, March 21, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. ET
This article deals with a couple of very “on point” questions: “Should I disinfect my mail?” and “What if my postal worker has coronavirus?”. In response to the first question, one expert offered a humourous but helpful reply:
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, agreed that the risk is theoretical and minimal.
“I will never disinfect my mail,” he said. “And I don’t even know how you would disinfect your mail.”
But in regard to an infected delivery person sneezing or coughing on mail just prior to delivering it:
Adalja said there’s minimal risk of the virus living on a package for several days, but if someone were to sneeze or cough on a letter before putting it into your mailbox “that’s a different story.”
Still, he said the same best practices that work during flu season like washing your hands and not touching your face after you open your mail would solve this problem.
Based on the guidance provided in the articles above, I get the impression there is very little risk of COVID-19 transmission from the inner contents of a package or mail item. However, there seems to be some risk that the outside of an envelope or package could be contaminated with COVID-19 immediately prior to being delivered. Therefore, there may be a genuine risk of transmission of COVID-19 from the outside of a package.
If you are concerned that mail items may have been recently handled by someone who might have COVID-19, it may be prudent to open and dispose of the envelope or outer packaging of items, and then immediately wash your hands, before handling the inner contents of the items.
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