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There’s something you need to know about coronavirus and face masks

Published May 23rd, 2020 10:02AM EDT
Coronavirus Face Masks
Image: Carlos Tischler/Shutterstock

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  • Face masks are advised during the novel coronavirus health crisis, whether they’re homemade or disposable. Several studies have shown the virus can travel in the air with ease, and face masks can reduce the risk of transmission.
  • But the COVID-19 virus can survive on surfaces, including the exterior and interior sides of face masks.
  • New data shows that the virus can survive for up to 7 days on face masks, so reusable masks should be cleaned after each use and disposable masks should be discarded.

The novel coronavirus can live on a variety of surfaces for anywhere from a few hours to several days, as was reinforced by a new study a few weeks ago. That’s why we’ve all trained ourselves to treat surfaces as possible contaminants and why we’ve been cleaning counters, door handles, and basically anything that may contain traces of the virus more often than before. That’s also why we’ve been more apprehensive about packages the delivery person drops off, and why we’ve been wiping down certain products purchased from grocery stores and other places. The CDC a few days ago updated one of its COVID-19 pages to make it clear that the novel coronavirus spreads mainly from person to person, and surface transmission is less likely. That doesn’t change the fact that it can happen, and that the virus can survive on some surfaces for long periods.

A new report from an Italian health authority explains that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on the interior of face masks for as long as 4 days, which is an important reminder that masks have to be handled with care, especially if you’re handling them for a loved one who is infected.

The Italian Superior Institute of Health (ISS) published new guidelines on “cleaning and disinfection of non-healthcare settings during COVID-19 health emergency: surfaces, indoor environments, and clothing,” where it addresses various types of surfaces and products including face masks, as well as cleaning procedures. The ISS says that SARS-CoV-2 particles have been detected on the interior side of the mask as long as 4 days after a mask was worn, and up to 7 days on the exterior. A separate study a few weeks ago also explained that the novel coronavirus can survive up to 7 days on the surface of face masks.

“The reported data is the result of evidence from scientific literature but must be declined based on environmental situations. For example, coronaviruses resist better at low temperatures and in humid environments,” ISS epidemiologist Paolo D’Ancona said, per Huffington Post Italy. The expert warned that the presence of the virus alone doesn’t mean it’s still viable and can infect others, but care is always advised when handling the masks.

“The fact that the particles survive does not mean that they transmit the disease: if there are fewer viral particles, the infectious load is lower,” D’Ancona said. He did however note that the minimum amount of coronavirus needed to infect an individual still isn’t known. The immune response of individuals also plays a role in establishing that minimum viral load, he added.

Several studies were able to prove that traces of the coronavirus can be found on surfaces for days after contamination. But they could not tell whether the virus particles would still be infectious. The virus could be dead but still detectable in tests, as was the case with a CDC study that showed SARS-CoV-2 was present inside cruise ships 17 days after the ships were evacuated. Even if you touch the virus, it still has to reach your mouth, nose, or eyes to infect you. We don’t have all the answers we need, so extra care is required when handling potentially contaminated objects, particularly face masks.

“Reusable masks should be used only once and then immediately put in the washing machine, without resting them on the furniture,” the Italian health expert said. “Disposable ones should be thrown into the unsorted trash immediately after use.” D’Ancona added that people should only touch the elastic loops of masks, regardless of what type they might be. People should also wash their hands before handling the loops and after taking a mask off. Finally, face masks should be thrown in the trash rather than on the ground to minimize the impact on the environment.

This sort of information should be of particular interest to those of you caring for a COVID-19 patient at home, or to your family members who might be caring for you. If you still can’t find face masks in stores (though there are plenty in stock right now at Amazon), you can always make your own, but the same cleaning rules should apply.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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