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Andrew Pope has a system for keeping himself safe during the pandemic. When the post arrives he deposits it into one of two boxes on his porch – one for post that arrives Monday to Wednesday, and the other for arrivals from the rest of the week. After the mail has spent three days in either box, it’s allowed beyond the porch for the first time. Any deliveries that must be taken care of urgently, such as grocery shopping, he handles with gloves and carefully wipes clean before bringing into the house.
Over the summer, when life seemed to be sliding back to normality and the UK government emphatically ushered citizens back into workplaces and restaurants, Pope’s vigilance against Covid-19 barely faltered. He and his partner have all their groceries delivered and they haven’t visited a pub or restaurant since March. He compares their front porch to the airlocks that protected Matt Damon from the deadly Martian atmosphere in the blockbuster film The Martian. Inside, the couple can largely control which risks they are exposed to – outside is a different beast altogether.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned life into one never ending risk assessment. At times, the advice from governments has been at odds with what we know about how the disease is transmitted. Against this backdrop of contradiction and confusion – and with many people distrustful of how their government has handled the pandemic – some have decided to supplement the official advice with their own ways of managing risk.
Pope’s boxed-based mail quarantine dates all the way back to the pandemics of the Middle Ages. In fourteenth century Venice, letters were fumigated or dunked in vinegar in an effort to forestall the bubonic plague spreading across Europe. During a plague outbreak in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the turn of the twentieth century, postal workers snipped off the corner of envelopes and left them in an airtight room filled with sulphur fumes in an effort to sterilise the letters within.
When it comes to our present-day pandemic, fears about surface transmission – that is, picking up active viral particles by touching contaminated surfaces – were first prompted by a study posted to an online preprint server on March 10. The study, later published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that the virus could linger on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours. Although the study from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) also showed that the virus could remain airborne, it was the data on contaminated surfaces that were quickly picked up by the media. Multiple people I spoke to for this story referenced the NIH study as the reason why they disinfected groceries or quarantined deliveries before letting them into the house.
But we know now that quarantining mail and disinfecting groceries is unlikely to have a significant impact on your chances of catching Covid-19. “A lot of these studies don’t really represent the degree of risk that this poses to people in everyday life. I think the risk is low in this pandemic,” says Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester who specialises in the transmission of respiratory viruses. Studies of super-spreading events suggest that the most common routes of transmission are droplets projected from the mouths and noses of infected people, and airborne particles that linger in poorly ventilated spaces, potentially infecting people many feet away.
“It would have been best from the start to include [airborne transmission] as a likely route,” says Vincent Munster, chief of the NIH’s virus ecology unit and one of the co-authors of the NEJM paper. The main point of the paper, he says, was to find out whether the Covid-19 virus could be transmitted in the same way as Sars-CoV-1, the virus that killed 774 people during the 2002 Sars pandemic. For Munster, the implications of his study were clear: the virus was most likely to spread through droplets and possibly the air and so the most useful things people could do to slow the spread would be to socially distance and wear masks. Surface transmission of Covid-19 is possible, Munster says, but it poses a smaller risk of infection than direct contact with respiratory droplets or inhaling the virus from the air.
Despite the growing evidence about how the virus spreads, the UK government was slow to promote simple ways to mitigate those risks. It wasn’t until May 11 that the government started advising people to wear face coverings in shops. But often, the policies introduced just didn’t seem to match what we know about where we’re most likely to contract coronavirus. In September, the UK brought in new rules that limited gatherings outdoors to six people or less while allowing people to meet indoors in pubs, even though the best evidence we have – from super-spreading events in workplaces, bars and churches – points towards meetings in loud indoor places as being much riskier than outdoor locations.
“The most dangerous exposure is you talking to someone without a mask on, and the virus just travelling the half-meter or so without the chance to get exposed to drying UV light or temperature,” says Tang. What we know from other respiratory viruses tells us that contaminated surfaces are likely to be a transmission route for Covid-19, but they’re not likely to be the most common way people pick up the virus, he says. The most basic health advice that we’ve had drilled into us since childhood – wash your hands frequently and thoroughly – is still important, but it’s not enough to protect us from catching Covid-19. It’s not things that pose the main risk in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s people.
This adds another layer of confusion to our daily risk calculations – it’s hard for humans to adjust to the fact that social contact now presents a risk to our health. “I think it’s impossible to overstate just how unusual the situation is where social contact could literally be lethal,” says Simone Schnall, director of the Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. “Telling people that it’s dangerous to be with others, that goes so much against human nature, at every level.”
Even where the UK’s current guidelines do allow us to meet in pubs and restaurants, many people aren’t keen to take the risk. “Maybe I don’t trust everybody who’s around me,” says Ruth, who lives in London and has minimised all social contact outside of her home. “If I’ve seen friends it’s because we’ve sat in the garden with a cup of coffee, not inside my house,” she says. Early on in the pandemic Ruth quarantined everything that came into her home, but now she sprays groceries with antibacterial spray before putting them away.
Though the risk reduction from cleaning items or quarantining mail is likely to be small, these behavioural changes are relatively easy to implement and stick to. “We will take on information if it suits our purposes, if it makes us feel good and doesn’t interfere with what we’re doing on a regular basis already,” says Schnall. Our perception of risk is also highly personal. A study Schnall co-authored in 2018 found that people who are more sensitive to disgust are also more likely to have a heightened perception of risk.
“I’d rather make small sacrifices now such as not travelling or having dinners with friends than risking a lower quality of life for the remainder of my life,” says one resident of British Columbia in Canada who asked to remain anonymous. They point to evidence of the long-term health effects of Covid-19 as the main reason why they take extra precautions which include not eating food prepared by other people and not inviting visitors inside their home.
Other people take the opposite response to the risks posed by Covid-19: flouting social distancing guidelines and refusing to wear masks. Even though our decisions aren’t always precisely in-line with the science around Covid-19 transmission, Schnall points out that it’s much, much better in terms of overall transmission rates if people lean towards being overly cautious. “It’s beneficial for society to have people like that,” she says. “I’d much rather have more of those people than those on the other side of the spectrum.”
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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