An easy way to limit your exposure to COVID-19 is to quit going out grocery shopping and buy groceries online instead. But there's a problem: This review found that coronaviruses can persist on inanimate surfaces for up to 9 days at room temperature (EDIT: Maybe as many as 17 days, actually. See this.) There's no way to know how many infected people handled your package before it got to you.
This is a protocol my roommate and I came up with for handling packages safely. Although it looks like a lot of steps, most individual steps aren't all that long. I chose to err on the side of including extra steps that you can cut if you want to save time. Obviously, if you're at increased risk of mortality from COVID-19, extra steps are going to be more worthwhile. (In addition to the elderly being at greater risk, the WHO's report says that people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory disease, or cancer have a mortality rate of 5-15%.)
Your time will be spent most efficiently if you process multiple boxes at once.
You will need
Note: It's been estimated that practically everyone in the US will have the virus by mid-May. So even if you think this procedure looks overly paranoid, you might want to buy these items now so you have them on hand in case things get worse. (How you gonna disinfect your box of disinfecting supplies without any disinfecting supplies?)
Anyway, you'll want (optional things in italics):
- A long sleeve shirt and long pants--ideally clothes you don't care very much about that are too big for you (they might shrink when you put them through the dryer on high heat for disinfection)
- 3 pairs of gloves
- A knife
- Bleach. If bleach isn't available, get hydrogen peroxide or concentrated ethanol, and use disposable gloves instead.
- Immunostimulants or similar (Edit: OR NOT). This paper has a list of supplements you could try in Table 1. Might as well get some Vitamin D too (Edit: OR NOT).
- Rubber bands
- Mask/eye protection
If you want to use items in your boxes soon:
- A spray bottle
- A washcloth
Note that most of these items, including gloves and a jug of bleach, can purchased for $1 each at Dollar Tree. They even have glucosamine, one of the supplements recommended in the paper.
To economize on time, I recommend waiting until you were about to take a shower anyway before starting this procedure, since showering is one of the last steps. Ideally, get set up for your shower before you start the process.
And it's probably better to work during the day so you can see what's touching what.
Preparation steps (optional steps are in italics):
- Take Chris Masterjohn's recommended supplements (garlic consumption details) and/or things Examine.com recommends.
- Moisturize your hands. You'll be washing your hands at the end, and you want to be moisturizing regularly so your skin doesn't dry out and develop cuts.
- If you have long hair, tie it back. If you have facial hair, shave it so your mask will fit better.
- Put on your long sleeve shirt & long pants. Use rubber bands to pull your shirt tight around your wrists so it covers your forearms as well as possible.
- If you're impatient to use the things in your boxes, prep disinfection solution in spray bottle:
The analysis of 22 studies reveals that human coronaviruses... can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute. Source * Bleach products are typically around 5% sodium hypochlorite, so if you dilute 10x (1 part bleach 9 parts water), you'll have 0.5% sodium hypochlorite--5 times as strong as needed. * Also grab a washcloth and put a clock within viewing distance of where you'll work so you can time a 60-second wait.
- Otherwise, designate a place inside your house for letting potentially infected items sit for 9 (edit: or 17!) days. The ideal place is warm and dry (e.g. near a heater vent--not so near that air streaming from the vent will blow virus everywhere though). Sunlight exposure can't hurt either.
- Turn on lights, open doors, open washing machine, open recycle bin, etc. so you won't have to touch these things during disinfection. Turn on an air filter if you have one.
- If you'll be disinfecting lots of boxes, get your boombox so you can play a disaster movie soundtrack on loop in the background.
- Put on 1st pair of gloves plus eye protection and mask.
- Might as well handle your mail first. Wearing gloves, open your mailbox (your mailperson touched it!) and slice open envelopes with your knife. Dump the contents of the envelopes in your 9-day wait spot and drop the empty envelopes in the recycle bin.
- The envelope has probably been handled by more people than whatever's inside. So try not to move virus from the envelope to the contents--keep your knife cuts shallow, or even cover your knife in bleach before you start.
- Open all boxes with the first set of gloves and your knife. Push box flaps down. Set gloves & knife aside. Try not to touch the outsides of the boxes from now on. (Who knows how many people handled them.)
- Take off 1st pair of gloves (when removing gloves, be sure not to touch the outside of the glove with your bare hand) and put gloves+knife in an "infected items" spot. Put on 2nd pair of gloves.
- If you're impatient to use box contents, disinfect them using your spray bottle. Pick up an item and spray 6 inches from it until it's wet all over. Once all items have been sprayed, allow spray to remain for 60 seconds.
- If you want to leave items in boxes during the 60 second wait, you might also spray the inside of the box so items don't just pick up virus from the inside again. But it's probably better to put the items somewhere else.
- Put on 3rd pair of gloves. (The 3rd pair won't get infected, they're just to protect your skin from disinfectant.) Use the washcloth to wipe disinfectant off.
- Bleach can leave a residue--be sure to wipe it all off, instead of letting it evaporate off, if you don't want residue.
- Otherwise, use 2nd pair of gloves to move box contents to designated 9-day wait spot.
- Put 2nd pair of gloves in "infected items" spot.
- Go take a shower. Be careful with your clothes because they might have virus on them. Wash areas of your skin that might have touched infected surfaces.
- Put your clothes in the laundry. (Be sure to wash+moisturize your hands after putting possibly-infected items in the washer but before using washer controls.)
- If you're alright with ruining the colors on your clothes, use bleach and throw in the gloves as well.
- Otherwise wash normally, then dry on the highest heat setting for at least 28 minutes (wash+moisturize hands after transferring from washer to dryer--clothes haven't been disinfected yet!) Then do a 2nd load with bleach and the gloves (does double duty cleaning both the gloves and the washer itself).
- Turn off your boombox.
- If you're using the wait option, I suggest you make a record of the date and the things that were left in the waiting spot. We have a whiteboard near the waiting spot that we use for this.
I think the simplest way to deal with the empty boxes is actually to leave them in your yard, then slice them up for recycling while wearing the 1st pair of gloves the next time you go through the disinfection procedure. (Remember, coronaviruses appear to survive ~indefinitely at colder temperatures, so just because a box has been sitting in your yard for 9 days doesn't mean it's disinfected!) If you have a backyard that's bigger than your front yard, you might want to move boxes to your backyard right after putting on the first pair of gloves, to avoid cluttering your front yard up.
Excessive? Maybe. I say this is the one time this century that germaphobes are 100% right. (Well, hopefully there won't be more times later in the century...)
EDIT March 29: Some commenters in this thread convinced me the procedure was excessive, so I relaxed it, and now I'm sick with something that I suspect is COVID-19. Only the paranoid survive.
Please comment or send me a personal message if you have any suggestions:
- More steps that could be added
- Steps that don't seem very essential
- Reorganization for greater efficiency
- Incorrect factual claims (I'm not an expert on any of this)