This Is the Only Way You Can Get COVID From Surfaces, Doctor Warns

"What has to happen is you have to have a significant amount of virus on whatever that thing is."

In the fight to control our current pandemic, scientists have been heavily researching COVID-19 for months to better understand exactly how the virus spreads. Discoveries made since the beginning of the pandemic have helped change public health guidelines, shifting from a primary focus on sanitizing surfaces in the early days to now avoiding poorly ventilated and crowded areas (because of what we know about aerosolization). In fact, doctors now say the only way to catch COVID from surfaces is the unlikely scenario of touching an item teeming with the virus and then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.

During a live YouTube Q&A from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) on Aug. 18, two doctors—Atul Grover, MD, PhD, executive director of the AAMC Research and Action Institute, and AAMC Chief Scientific Officer Ross McKinney, Jr., MD—discussed just how likely you are to contract COVID through touching objects.

"The risk of virus spread by contact with items—which are called fomites—is really pretty small," McKinney, Jr. said. "What has to happen is you have to have a significant amount of virus on whatever that thing is." And you have to do more than just touch that virus-laden object because COVID "doesn't go through your skin," the doctor said. "You have to transfer it from wherever you touch it, from that to your nose, mouth, or eyes for you to become infected. So, it's unlikely."

McKinney's assessment echos the same message that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has held since it changed its guidelines in late May. While the agency maintains that you can contract the virus through touch, its website states that it's "not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Since then, the CDC has continued to warn the public that the virus is most commonly transmitted through droplets that are released into the air when an infected person coughs, talks, sneezes, or sings.

But other health experts reiterate that it's important not to forget that even though the risk is low, it it still possible to get COVID from objects. "High touch surfaces like railings and doorknobs, elevator buttons are not the primary driver of the infection in the United States," comparative immunologist Erin Bromage, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth told The New York Times in May. "But it's still a bad idea to touch your face. If someone who is infectious coughs on their hand and shakes your hand and you rub your eyes—yes, you're infected. Someone's drinking from a glass, and you pick it up near the rim and later rub your eyes or mouth, you're infected."

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Despite it being very unlikely to catch COVID from surfaces, doctors still believe that the full combination of the CDC's recommended health guidelines make for the most effective protection routine. "If you're washing your hands, maintaining that distance, and wearing a mask, you're in pretty good shape," Grover said in the AAMC Q&A above. "Even if you're touching these fomites, there's no way for it to get into your system through intact skin on your hands."

Then, he joked: "[Just] don't go out and lick your mail." And for more risk factors to avoid, check out 24 Things You're Doing Every Day That Put You at COVID Risk.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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