11 Coronavirus Questions We All Have

Sometimes all you want to know is if you need to disinfect groceries. We've got the coronavirus info you're looking for.

by Patty Onderko Health Writer

You are working from home and social distancing. You're washing your hands, well, all the time. And you know that staying inside as much as you can is the best way to slow down the spread of coronavirus. Still, questions about quarantine life in the age of COVID-19 pop up every day. Can you pet your neighbor's dog? Can you use your scarf as a makeshift mask? Are you the only one in the world with zero hand sanitizer??

We've got the highly reassuring (really!) answers to those panic-inducing questions about day-to-day virus prevention and more.

Can I pet dogs?

Short answer: You might want to think twice before you do.

"If a person who is sick with COVID-19 coughs and sneezes directly onto their dog, it is theoretically possible that some viable virus would remain on its fur," says Roberto Viau Colindres, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and the Deputy Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship.

In fact, the CDC is aware of a small number of pets, including cats and dogs, reported to be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19.

You would probably have to smell the dog, or perhaps pet it profusely and then rub your nose or mouth, says Dr. Viau Colindres, and the American Veterinary Medical Association concurs. In a position statement, the group explained that because dog fur is porous and fibrous, it absorbs and traps pathogens, making it a very poor transmitter of the coronavirus.

Our advice? Treat pets as you would other human family members and do not let pets interact with people or animals outside the household. If a person inside the household becomes sick, isolate that person from everyone else, including pets.

Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by the virus that causes COVID-19 and the role animals may contribute in the spread of COVID-19. But for now, play it safe with your pets.

Can tying a scarf or bandana around my face substitute for a facemask?

Short answer: Maybe.

The CDC recently reversed its position on facemasks, encouraging the use of surgical or homemade masks for everyone (they still want to reserve the respirator masks for healthcare workers). Mask-wearing, however, does not replace other safety measures of social distancing, face-touching, and handwashing. Nor does wearing a mask guarantee that you will be protected from catching the virus.

"If you enter a room where someone has been coughing, the virus is aerosolized and won’t be stopped by the surgical mask," says Dr. Viau Colindres. "But because you're wearing the mask, you might think it's okay to stay or hang around the coughing person." What's more, the mask will pick up viruses from the environment that will concentrate on the outer layer. That's why it's important to remember to only use disposable masks once and to wash reusable masks every night.

But respirator masks work, don't they?

Short answer: Yes, but they should be reserved for healthcare workers.

An N95 or N100 respirator mask (the kind you see with the vent in the middle), if worn properly and consistently, will protect you from aerosolized virus. Wearing one properly and consistently, however, is surprisingly difficult to do. Healthcare personnel get fit-tested to make sure that the mask they are using is the right size and that they are achieving the correct seal, Dr. Viau Colindres explains. Even if the seal is good, using a respirator for a prolonged period of time is challenging. Breathing may be difficult and most people won’t tolerate it for more than a couple of hours.

Plus, the filtered virus sticks to the outside of the respirator. So just as with the surgical masks, every time you move or adjust it, you contaminate your hands. That is why healthcare providers, in ideal circumstances, dispose of the masks after one use.

Finally, "facemasks and respirators are in short supply and should be saved for caregivers and healthcare professionals," says Casey Barton Behravesh, the director of CDC’s One Health Office in the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. If you are in possession of unused respirators and masks, please donate them to a hospital near you!

Do I need to disinfect food delivery bags before I touch them?

Short answer: No, just wash your hands after unpacking them.

Save your disinfectant wipes. COVID-19 is primarily thought to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. While "it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching an object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads," says Barton Behravesh. "Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging." Your safest bet, she says: Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you unpack a bag or open a pizza box before eating (good advice even for non-pandemic times!).

What about Amazon boxes and other packages?

Short answer: There's no need to disinfect packages or mail, just wash your hands after touching them.

See above!

How should I handle touching money?

Short answer: "The same way as my grandmother told me: Wash your hands after handling money. You never know where it has been," says Dr. Viau Colindres.

If you have hand sanitizer, you can use it after exchanging cash and coins. But if you don't, that's okay (see below)! Just avoid touching your face until you can wash your hands with soap and water. And remember: Surface transmission is not thought to be the primary way that coronavirus spreads, particularly on a porous surface such as paper money. Use credit cards or pay by iPhone or other devices when possible.

Help! I don't have any hand sanitizer and there's none available. What can I do?

Short answer: Don't panic! Instead, simply avoid touching your face and wash your hands with soap and water.

"Before picking up hand sanitizer, we at the CDC first recommend washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds," says Barton Behravesh. Any kind of soap will do, adds Dr. Viau Colindres. "It doesn’t need to be antibacterial, disinfectant, or anything fancy."

If you don't have immediate access to soap and water, remember not to touch your nose, mouth, and eyes until you do. You can make your own hand sanitizer for those moments, too, by following this recipe from the World Health Organization. But again, it's okay if you don't!

Should I wear gloves when I go grocery shopping?

Short answer: No, just wash your hands when you get home.

Like masks, gloves can give you a false sense of security. And unless you are discarding your gloves for new ones after every interaction with the outside world, they will likely increase your risk of infections, says Viau Colindres. "You can't sanitize gloves, but you can sanitize your hands." Bring hand sanitizer to the grocery store if you have it or avoid touching your face until you can wash your hands at home.

Do I need to wash fruit that many people likely touched in the stores?

Short answer: Yes.

We’re hoping you’re in the habit of washing your produce whether or not there’s a pandemic, but for the sake of clarity, the FDA and CDC recommend rubbing produce under running water for 20 seconds and washing your hands with soap before and after. If you are cooking your produce, there's no need to wash it more than you normally would to rinse away dirt.

Is it safe to drink from a water fountain?

Short answer: Probably, but we'd avoid it.

"The water flowing from drinking fountains is safe, but the buttons or surface could pose a transmission risk," says Barton Behravesh. She recommends washing your hands afterwards. Dr. Viau Colindres, however, takes a more cautious approach. "Yes, the water itself is clean, but if the spout is contaminated, you'd probably want to clean it first, either with soap or alcohol." And that kind of takes away from the convenience factor of a water fountain, no?

Should I disinfect my car?

Short answer: Yes.

Just as you regularly disinfect high-touch areas within your home (door knobs, remote controls, your phone), it's a good idea to do the same in your car if you drive regularly—especially if you share the car with other passengers. Wipe down the door handles, steering wheel, and controls with a disinfectant. Run out of disinfectant wipes? Make your own by dipping a cloth in a solution of four teaspoons of bleach to one quart of water (but don't use bleach on leather!).

Patty Onderko
Meet Our Writer
Patty Onderko

Patty Onderko is a writer and editor who has covered health, parenting, psychology, travel, and more for more than 20 years. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife and two sons.