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Fact-checking the CDC’s new guidance: you should still disinfect packages [Updated]

Editor’s note: Between when we wrote this article and when it was scheduled to run, the CDC acknowledged that its guidelines were confusing and clarified them.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began a puzzling media push to minimize the risks of catching COVID-19 from touching packages or surfaces. Information spread around the internet to the effect that the virus “doesn’t spread easily on surfaces.” Despite those headlines, the CDC’s actual recommendations didn’t change.

We’ve known since at least March that COVID-19 could live for a long time on hard surfaces. Months ago, I told you how and why to disinfect packages to protect yourself from COVID-19, citing evidence from the New England Journal of Medicine and other sources.

Our advice boils down to this:

  • Don’t just skim headlines and move on. Read or at least skim the whole article.
  • You should disinfect any potentially contaminated surfaces, including packages.
  • You should wash and/or disinfect your hands frequently, especially after handling potentially contaminated surfaces.

The CDC created confusion around surface spread

Updated CDC guidelines feature a heading that says “The virus does not spread easily in other ways.” The top bullet point under that heading says in bold “From touching surfaces or objects.” But if you read past that bold-faced bullet point, the first thing the CDC says is “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”

What’s bizarre is that the CDC downplays the risks of surface contamination in bold, and then turns around and states that surface contamination is still a threat.

A screenshot of the CDC recommendations with contradictions highlighted.
Even the CDC is confused.

Unfortunately, the CDC’s mixed messaging has caused a number of misleading headlines, like this USA Today article about the guidelines. The headline says in bold “The CDC says coronavirus ‘does not spread easily’ on surfaces or objects. Here’s what we know.”

(Disclaimer: I have contributed to USA Today in the past.)

Screenshot of the misleading USA Today headline

But scroll down deeper into the article. “The CDC points out that while chances aren’t high, the risk is still there,” the article reads later. Then, the author recommends washing your hands after touching packages and mail. So, it still seems like surface contamination is a threat.

A screenshot of the actual truth deeper in the USA Today article.

Or, here’s a news item from KTLA 5 titled, “CDC now says the coronavirus does not spread easily from touching surfaces or objects.” Again, if you don’t watch the video, you could easily get the impression that packages aren’t potentially dangerous and you’re a nutcase for hosing them down with bleach. Thankfully, the hosts at KLTA 5 are skeptical, and they point out how terribly inconsistent the messaging around COVID-19 has been. But you have to watch the whole video to understand that.

So, what are the facts?

It’s hard to know what to believe anymore. If you feel confused, we don’t blame you. The science around COVID-19 is fast-moving and shaky, and the authorities haven’t always been forthright with the public.

Here’s what we currently understand about COVID-19 and surfaces:

There’s also the fact that there are reports of people largely staying home and getting infected anyway. There are a few possibilities:

  • They or someone in their household is interacting with outsiders, like delivery people.
  • They’re lying, and as Dr. House liked to say, “Everybody lies.”
  • The virus is spreading through the sewer system.
  • They’re picking up the virus from contaminated surfaces, like packages.

It’s true that there’s a lot about this virus we don’t understand. And until we understand more, the wise thing to do is to err on the side of caution.

More: Getting takeout from a restaurant without catching COVID-19

The important thing as we continue through this pandemic is that you not be fooled by misleading headlines. We recommend you protect yourself by doing the following:

  • Maintain social distancing as much as possible.
  • Wear a mask when around people outside your household.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and surfaces handled by people outside your household. Like mail and packages. This is the CDC’s own advice.
  • Wash and/or disinfect your hands frequently, especially after touching potentially contaminated surfaces. Again, this is the CDC’s own advice.


    • lemur

      Yeah, when I saw those headlines I checked the CDC’s site and found they did not substantially change their advice.

      I wonder though if at some point they got evidence that some people thought that the risk from surfaces was the same as the risk from close contact with someone else. I can just imagine some confused individual thinking that restaurant delivery carries the exact same risk as eating in.

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    • Margit Burmeister

      My 5 ct to CDC is that we should not consider risk as yes or no. I like the more recent statements by epidemiologists about High and low risk activities and reminding people about TIME being a factor. Outside drinking tea with a neighbor is more risky than walking outside, and both are less risky than doing anything together inside. So, its ok to not wear a mask when in a park or biking if there are few people, and people should stop complaining about it. Similarly, the idea of getting infected from groceries is not zero but low.

      I used to wipe down the groceries or even left them in the car for 24 hours – fine in March when the garage was the same temp as our fridge, but not possible now. I am now longer wiping down any, but do wash my hands after shopping, before putting them away, and again after putting them away.

      We all need to learn to think about risk as a quantity, not a yes or no. But CDC tries to put it into quick sound bites that then come across as yes or no.

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