Q&A With Dr. Frederic Weinbaum About Ways To Protect Yourself Against COVID-19

Basic precautions like distance on hand washing are the best defense against contracting COVID-19, Dr. Fredric Weinbaum of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital says. Other precautions like wearing masks and cleaning off food packages are less likely to be of much additional protection.

There are a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns about how much of a risk going about daily life poses to citizens, even those who are under stay-at-home orders from non-essential businesses. Going to the grocery store or pharmacy, getting takeout food, even Amazon deliveries are causes for anxiety among those fearful of contracting and spreading the virus.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s chief medical officer and chief operating officer, Dr. Fredric I. Weinbaum, talked this week about what concerns are reasonable and how the basic precautions we’ve all been told to follow work — and whether some specific additional precautions might be worthwhile.

Q: We have heard that the virus can vaporize and linger in the air. Is that true?
The virus can aerosolize during certain procedures where a patient’s airway is being manipulated in the hospital. Absent those procedures, the way the virus spreads is through either direct contact or droplets. Droplets are created when someone coughs or sneezes. They are not microscopic particles that remain in the air. They’re droplets that fall to earth or a surface by gravity, and those surfaces can then become contaminated.

Q: What precautions should people take when outdoors at the beach, walking through their neighborhood or on a nature trail?
Certainly, outdoors is an environment that’s safer [than indoors], because of the ability to maintain sufficient distances between each other, and the fact that there aren’t a great deal of available surfaces for the virus to land on and potentially be a source of contact.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t maintain a safe distance wherever you are. Maintain 6 feet.
If you come in contact with any surfaces, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands. A thorough wash, 20 seconds of scrubbing and rubbing on all surfaces of your hands. Coronavirus is an RNA virus, which is encapsulated in a fatty lipid envelope. Lipids are particularly sensitive to soap and detergent. Soap and water is probably the best thing you can do for prevention of contact spread.

Q: Does wearing a mask help?
They are probably unnecessary as protection. Do you get any protection from wearing a mask and gloves? One, you are protecting others from contact with you. And there may be some modicum of protection you are getting. That should not be thought of as absolute personal protection and is no substitute for washing your hands and cleaning surfaces.

Q: How can someone best protect themselves if they have to go to a grocery store or pharmacy?
The best advice when going to a grocery store is to maintain 6-foot distances whenever possible, [and] to use a disinfectant to wipe the surfaces that you are touching, such as the cart, before and after you shop, out of respect for that next person. Wash your hands thoroughly when you get home, and provide as much distance as you possibly can throughout the entire experience.
It’s unlikely that anyone will have a problem when shopping at the grocery store. But my advice is to limit one’s shopping at the grocery store as much as possible so as to avoid any surface contact where you could inadvertently touch your eyes or face and infect yourself.

Q: What about bringing the products you purchase into your house?
If you want to use a wipe and wipe off any packaging that you bring in the house, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But the potential for that to transmit infection is extremely unlikely, because those surfaces, we can assume, haven’t been covered in droplets like a hospital surface might be in the presence of an infected person.

Q: How long can the virus linger on a food package or cardboard delivery box?
Studies from hospital rooms, which are a poor comparison to food shelves, have shown that the virus is capable of lingering on stainless steel surfaces and plastic surfaces for considerable lengths of time. With plastic, it can be up to seven days.
But, once more, the likelihood is extremely low. You’re not putting your packages of tea and the other things you are buying in a grocery store in a hospital room with patients that are actively coughing. Theoretically, the possibility may be there, but, realistically, the potential is very low.
But when you are handling things, you shouldn’t be touching your face and … you need to wash your hands when you are done.
The virus can persist on cardboard. I can’t say it couldn’t possibly be there. It’s unlikely that it’s there, but after you handle cardboard, wash your hands.

Q: What about picking up takeout or delivery of prepared food?
When you are doing a pick-up, if there is a system to avoid contact and maintain social distance, that’s better. When you bring food home in a plastic box, you should transfer the food to a plate and discard the plastic box, and wash your hands.
The food itself is highly unlikely to [contain] virus, since it’s been cooked and subject to temperatures.

Q: Should you reheat it?
You can reheat it, and if you subject it to adequate reheating, that will also destroy the virus.

Q: If you get the disease and recover, are you then immune from getting it again?
We believe that to be likely to be true, if this is like every other similar viral infection. But there is inadequate data to prove that everyone who has had the virus is immune from getting it again. There have been some promising reports of patients who, after they had been infected, have antibodies, and those antibodies, in small studies, have been shown to ameliorate symptoms when infused into other patients.