CDC: Coronavirus 'does not spread easily' from surfaces

The CDC’s website has changed some of the language it uses to describe how the coronavirus spreads, downplaying the chances of getting the virus from contact with surfaces where the virus has been left behind.

For those of you still wiping down groceries and other packages amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, breathe a sigh of relief: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says the novel virus “does not spread easily” from “touching surfaces or objects” — but experts warn that doesn’t mean it’s no longer necessary to take “practical and realistic” precautions in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Though it’s not exactly clear when, the federal health agency appears to have recently changed its guidelines from early March that simply said it “may be possible” to spread the virus from contaminated surfaces. The CDC now includes “surfaces or objects” under a section that details ways in which the coronavirus does not readily transmit.

The current CDC page emphasizes that the disease “spreads easily” from person to person:

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).

  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

  • These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

  • COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.

Transmission via contact with surfaces now appears under the subheading “The virus does not spread easily in other ways” along with getting the virus from your pet.

That’s a shift from what the same page said throughout all of last month and the first part of May. The previous language stated, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus.”

A spokesman for WebMD called the change an “important step.”

Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer for the healthcare website WebMD, called the CDC’s changes an “important step in clarifying how the virus is spread, especially as we gain new information.”

“It also may help reduce anxiety and stress. Many people were concerned that by simply touching an object they may get coronavirus and that’s simply not the case. Even when a virus may stay on a surface, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually infectious,” Whyte told Fox News in an email.

As for the exact date when the change was made, according to the Wayback Machine it happened on May 11, or last Monday. The previous language was still on the page in the morning but by the evening it had been replaced.

As reversals go, this is less dramatic than the CDC’s reversal on wearing masks. Here’s an NPR report from March 31:

A few months ago, it may have seemed silly to wear a face mask during a trip to the grocery store. And in fact, the mainline public health message in the U.S. from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been that most people don’t need to wear masks.

But as cases of the coronavirus have skyrocketed, there’s new thinking about the benefits that masks could offer in slowing the spread. The CDC says it is now reviewing its policy and may be considering a recommendation to encourage broader use.

At the moment, the CDC website says the only people who need to wear a face mask are those who are sick or are caring for someone who is sick and unable to wear a mask.

Actually, what the CDC said at the time was, “If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask). Facemasks may be in short supply and they should be saved for caregivers.” The current page says the opposite:

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

All that to say, the new tone regarding transmission of the virus via surfaces is not the first time the CDC advice has needed some adjustment.

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