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Coronavirus Contamination June 2020

Based on our earlier life experiences, we are both extremely committed to doing everything we can to avoid exposure to the novel Coronavirus. We’ve used our fear, our science backgrounds, and our obsessive-compulsive tendencies to devise the very best practices we can to help us stay safe.

Initially in the pandemic, contaminated surfaces were thought to present the greatest risk of exposure to the virus but now, direct transfer of the virus through face-to-face events are of the greatest concern. It’s widely accepted that the best intervention is to social distance and wear masks, which we do. That’s where the biggest pay-off is, those are the actions that give you the most protection for the least amount of effort. But we are leaving no stone unturned and are committing an inordinate amount of time and effort to avoiding transmission from surfaces as well. The following are examples of our extreme measures to protect ourselves from Coronavirus exposure from surfaces.

A Classic Contamination Scenario
Unknown to you, before you bought the bag of frozen vegetables yesterday, someone with active but asymptomatic COVID-19 coughed on the products in the open cold case, spraying highly infectious Coronavirus particles on several bags. Being stable for days on plastic and even more protected from breakdown by being in the cold, the viral particles are still highly infectious once in your freezer.

You reach into the freezer, pull the bag out, close the door, set the bag on the counter, and stand it upright. In addition to the counter top, both hands are now contaminated with the virus from the plastic veggie bag. You leave infectious particles on utensils when you pull out scissors and a clip to seal the bag from the drawer, as well as on the drawer knob. Opening the bag with scissors contaminates the scissor blades and your hand contaminates the handle. Lifting the pot lid to pour the veggies into the boiling water leaves particles on it. You close up the bag, further contaminating your hands, and again contaminate the clip when using it. The freeze door handle gets its share of viral contamination when you open and close the freezer to return the remaining veggies. Next, you open the fridge door to pull out the butter dish and set it on the counter and then select a knife from another drawer and place it by the butter dish. These items are also now contaminated.

Two household members join you in the kitchen, one takes something from the refrigerator, the other uses the butter knife. Now, all 3 of you have infective Coronavirus particles on your hands. At this point, there is no infection, no disease process is under way. IF you all wash your hands now, there is no problem. IF none of you touches your face, then there is no problem, even if you don’t wash your hands. When, and it is usually when not if, each of you touches your eyes, your nose, or mouth, you are potentially on your way to being infected with the virus. And, as you move through your home touching things, you are leaving a trail of infective viral particles in your invisible wake.

If you and everyone in your household can be 100% consistent in not touching your faces with your hands, except when they are freshly washed, then you do not need to concern yourselves with cleaning potentially contaminated surfaces that you bring into your home. We’ve tried and despite being highly motivated, we know that we aren’t consistent enough to keep ourselves safe. At least in this regard, we are normal: humans apparently are the only mammal that repeatedly, and often unknowingly, touch their faces.

Our Response
With this grim understanding of Coronavirus contamination, we have condemned ourselves to washing the packaging of almost every single item that we put in the refrigerator or freezer and we relentlessly clean the handles of both compartments. The cheapest, easiest way we’ve devised to do this is to use our kitchen sponge with a liberal amount of dish detergent on it to swab almost everything that goes in each compartment. Soap or detergent, both which are made from fats or are “lipophilic”, do the job. Their fats bind with the fatty membrane of the virus and then the viral particles fall apart. Technically viruses aren’t alive, so they can’t die.
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Using detergent to inactivate lurking Coronavirus particles on packages before they go into the freezer.

On market day when we bring home 10 pounds of vacuum-sealed frozen meat and 7 pounds of frozen vegetables, we flop the plastic-wrapped products on to the kitchen counter. I wipe all of the surfaces of all of the bags with the sudsy sponge, doing my best to get into the folds of the packaging. Initially we rinsed the detergent off, but now I leave it on for speed and simplicity and as a protective barrier.

We are currently in a heat wave with about 10% day time humidity, so I don’t bother drying the packages. Next stop: into the freezer with all of them. Again, with our low humidity, there isn’t enough moisture on the packages for them to stick to each other. Initially, when I rinsed them, they did stick together while freezing. The veggie packages aren’t always air tight, so minimizing the water on the outside of the bags reduces the odds of detergent seeping into our food. We happen to be boiling our produce, so it would be diluted anyway.

Items destined for the refrigerator get re-bagged, washed, swabbed with the sudsy sponge, or isolated on one of the 2 quarantine shelves. Plastic boxed berries aren’t “processed” but instead put in isolation, like eggs in cartons. These packages are handled like they had a skull and crossbones logo on them and are generally placed in the sink when removing some of their contents, then returned to their quarantine shelf. Highly intentional hand washing and handle washing occur at the end of the process. If you miss a single item and it happens to be contaminated, you risk contaminating everything in the refrigerator when you move other items around with your hands.

We consider our refrigerator/freezer our highest risk zone for Coronavirus exposure in our trailer and often wash our hands between the handling of every item when doing food prep. We also repeatedly dab the appliance handles with our sudsy sponge. Like with the food packaging, we’ve largely abandoned rinsing detergent off our our surfaces, whether the counter tops or handles. So far, we haven’t noticed any problem with residue build-up and we hope that it leaves a Coronavirus-disabling scum.

In Conclusion
In refining your contamination-abeyance protocols, there are several concepts to keep in mind. Cold slows down the reproduction rate of bacteria, helping to preserve food, but cold has no immediate effect on Coronaviruses. Coronaviruses replicate in their hosts, in people; bacteria generally reproduce in hosts or when just sitting around. The novel Coronavirus is still under study but, based on other recent scourges, some suggest that the new virus will last several days in the refrigerator and up to 2 years in a freezer at 0°F.

Of course, your risk of getting the COVID-19 disease depends upon many factors: viral load or how big the pile is of viral particles that you contact; your underlying health; your age, your genetics, and luck.

To stay safe: socially distance, wear a mask, wash your hands often, keep your hands off of your face, and think like a detective in evaluating the likelihood that you are leaving a trail of Coronavirus particles throughout your living space.