COVID-19 can linger on some surfaces. What does that mean for gift giving this holiday season?

TORONTO — Studies have shown that the novel coronavirus can live on different surfaces, sometimes for several hours and even days, after an infected person coughs or sneezes on them.

So what does that mean in terms of gift giving for the holiday season?

Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at Western University in London, Ont., says Canadians shouldn’t be concerned. While fomite transmission or transmission through inanimate objects is possible, she told CTVNews.ca that it is unlikely someone will become sick from receiving a gift.

“It’s important to remember that that’s just small bits of viruses, it doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody could get infected from it,” Bauer said in a telephone interview.

Previous studies have looked at how long SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, remains infectious on different surfaces, with some finding it to be a matter of hours, and others saying it could be days.

According to an April study from the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can live on cardboard or paper — typical materials for gift-wrapping — for approximately 24 hours.

Bauer explained that the half-life of COVID-19 — the time it takes for the virus to be reduced by 50 per cent — varies for different surfaces, but if people are concerned, she said planning ahead will help eliminate the risk.

“With an object in a room for about a half a day, about 50 per cent of any SARS-CoV-2 virus on that will be gone. For every half day, a half of the remaining virus would be gone, so it doesn’t take very long for it to be only the tiniest amount of coronavirus remaining,” she said.

Despite this, Bauer says there is no need to wipe down gifts or quarantine the presents for a certain amount of time before opening them.

“With Christmas presents, a lot of people buy and wrap their presents in advance so that would mean that for the gifts that are contained in that package, there is functionally no risk of transmission if it was wrapped a week or more in advance of being delivered,” she said.

Bauer added that this is “good incentive” for holiday shoppers to stay organized this year so they can buy presents early and immediately wrap them.

“Then when you receive a gift or if you’re giving a gift, we can treat it just like we do with bringing things home from the store. We’ve been encouraged to unwrap things and then wash our hands, and it’s the same thing with gifts,” Bauer said.

“So as long as people unwrap and then go wash their hands, the contents inside should be fine.”

To help mitigate the risk even further, Bauer said gift givers should let the receiver know how the gift has been handled so they feel assured that the present has been “treated in a way that’s going to be safe for everybody.”

Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of Queen’s University’s infectious diseases division in Kingston, Ont., told CTVNews.ca the same precautions can be applied when shipping a gift.

He told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview that even if COVID-19 is present on a parcel, the likelihood that it is going to result in transmission is “exceptionally low.”

“The time and the nature of materials, and environmental exposures of parcels that are being shipped either through the mail or through courier services is really going to inactivate any virus that’s there,” Evans said.

While the Public Health Agency of Canada warns that products shipped within or from outside Canada could be contaminated, their risk of spreading COVID-19 remains minimal. According to the agency, there is no risk of any type of coronavirus entering Canada or being transmitted within the country through parcels or packages.

Evans says that studies showing how long COVID-19 can last on different surfaces are done in “highly experimental conditions” and don’t reflect real-world scenarios. He said the environment in which Christmas gifts are given actually pose the risk.

“If you’re visiting someone at Christmas and somebody in that house is infected, then just coming into the house puts the risk for the transmission event. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas presents in general,” Evans said.

While Christmas is a time to get together with family, Evans recommends that Canadians only gather with those already in their social bubble. He explained that gathering indoors with multiple people from different households provides “lots of opportunities” for person-to-person spread through respiratory droplets, which is predominantly how the novel coronavirus is transmitted.

“The Christmas gifts are minimal if any part of the equation, its just being in the same house with the person. If anybody’s infected in that house, you’re going to have an environment within the house that’s actually fairly laden with virus,” Evans said.

However, he says there are ways for friends and families to give presents this year without putting one another at risk including exchanging gifts outside, dropping presents off at one another’s doorsteps, or mailing gifts.

“Dropping off gifts to people or organizing for their delivery through whatever mail or courier service is probably the best way to ensure that you can exchange safely because the risk of transmitting the virus through that mechanism is very, very, very low,” Evans said.

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