Can COVID-19 Spread Through Mail?

Tip: If you're concerned, wash your hands after handling the mail.

Early in the pandemic, many people were concerned about contracting COVID-19 by touching surfaces or objects containing the virus and then becoming infected. Many people took on the practice of isolating or routinely wiping down items entering their homes, such as mail or packages.

As the pandemic evolved, scientists continued to investigate SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), including the ability of the different variants to survive on a variety of surfaces and possibly infect people.

An early pandemic study published in March 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 can live up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Unsurprisingly, experts found that newer, more transmissible variants were better at surviving for longer periods of time on surfaces. In two preprint studies, meaning they haven't been peer-reviewed, researchers found that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 lasted longer on surfaces and human skin than other variants of the virus. In the first study, published in February of 2022, researchers found that the original SARS-CoV-2 strain found in Wuhan lasted 56 hours on a plastic surface while later variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta lasted for about 191, 157, 59, and 114 hours, respectively. The Omicron variant lasted the longest, at 193.5 hours. On human skin, the original SARS-CoV-2 strain lasted 8.6 hours while Omicron lasted for 21.1 hours.

The second study, published in March of 2022, compared how the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and Omicron survived on different surfaces, including stainless steel, polypropylene sheet, glass, facial tissue paper, and printing paper. On most surfaces, Omicron lasted nearly double the amount of time as the original strain.

The durability of Omicron may help explain how this variant became so contagious. Still, there's no need to start obsessively wiping and washing. According to Joseph Vinetz, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist, that doesn't mean it will infect you. "Detection does not mean transmissible," said Dr. Vinetz.

Even though Omicron may survive longer on surfaces, a person is still more likely to be infected by inhaling the virus rather than by touching something that's been contaminated. Health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state that SARS-CoV-2 is much more likely to infect people through airborne droplets carrying the virus, especially if an infected person is 6 feet away or less. Of course, according to the CDC, infected people may contaminate surfaces they touch in some circumstances. These surfaces, in turn, become a means of transmission, especially if someone touches that surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth with hands that have the virus on them. This is why it is always important to wash your hands regularly.

As for mail, Alan Koff, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at UC Davis Health, said 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," said Dr. Koff—that's in contrast to the lab settings viruses are usually tested in. All that's to say, of course, that even if SARS-CoV-2 did make it onto a package, it would likely not make it to your door.

While contracting COVID-19 through a package alone is very unlikely, there's another thing that factors into your risk with receiving mail: the health of mail carriers and package handlers. That's because the primary way SARS-CoV-2 spreads is via direct contact with the respiratory droplets of those who are showing symptoms. So theoretically, if your mail carrier is ill, they can pass the virus to you.

If you're still worried, follow the CDC's general advice for protecting yourself from the COVID-19 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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