As we sit in our homes, binging our favorite shows on Netflix and losing ourselves in online shopping, mail services across the country are scrambling to keep up with demand. As an essential service, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is the leading mail delivery service for online shopping, but that’s far from all it delivers. The service is also responsible for basic mail deliveries of things like your medications, social security, and even those 2020 stimulus checks.
With mail and packages traveling across such distances, many Americans are nervous about handling their mail, but there is no reason to worry with the right precautions. Here's all of the latest science, tips and expert advice you need to know when handing mail during coronavirus.
Can the coronavirus survive on mail and packages?
Yes, but not for very long, and the likelihood of transmission is relatively low. COVID-19 comes from a virus called SARS-CoV-2, an illness that is spread through the respiratory droplets that we naturally emit when we talk, cough or sneeze. Therefore, it is possible that someone infected with COVID-19 could cough, sneeze, or speak forcefully enough to contaminate your mail while they are packing, sorting, or delivering it. It's also possible that, if their hands were contaminated with coronavirus, they could leave particles behind on your mail.
Back in March 2020, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a study showing that coronavirus particles can last up to 24 hours on cardboard. That is not nearly as long as other materials like metal and glass, where the virus can survive for up to five days.
However, studies have shown that to become infected with COVID-19, you have be exposed to a certain volume of coronavirus particles — also known as the "infectious dose." Scientists aren't sure what the infectious dose for COVID-19 is, nor whether it's consistent for every individual, but many agree that the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from touching mail is low. The CDC, the World Health Organization and the Surgeon General agree that there is no reason to believe that COVID can be transmitted via mail.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible.
Does handling mail carry any risk during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Still, for mail-based businesses, the novel coronavirus has brought some serious concerns.
“Mail orders are something I deal with every day here at carpassionate.com,” says Michael Lowe, its CEO who specializes in the rebuilding of custom cars. “However, the delivery system isn't so simple; there are hundreds of workers that are involved in the process before the parcel gets to my front door. As a result, I've begun wearing gloves when handling deliveries. This is something for my own peace of mind. Wearing gloves, I know I'm protected from anything that can get into my system and potentially infect me.”
How to handle mail during coronavirus
Avoid contact with delivery people
UPS My Choice is one example of how you can take control of your upcoming deliveries by using its special delivery instructions, including contactless deliveries. Many companies like Walmart and Uber Eats are also allowing you to choose contactless deliveries. This means that the driver will place your packages at your door and knock or ring the doorbell before stepping back or leaving. If no signature is required, you can receive your delivery without ever coming into contact with anyone else.
Sign up for digital mail
Most shipping providers already allow for tracking, but now you can sign up for digital mail, too. USPS offers Informed Delivery, a service that digitizes your incoming mail and sends you pictures and tracking information. It is a free service that helps you determine whether you really need to take that trip to the mailbox each day. With COVID living on paper for up to 24 hours, you could feasibly leave your mail to self-quarantine in your mailbox before retrieval.
It is a strategy that General Practitioner Dr. Giuseppe Aragona of Prescription Doctor recommends. “The easiest way to handle mail during the pandemic, especially if you are concerned with possibly catching the virus, is to simply leave it where it is for 24 hours. Pick up mail from your letterbox 24 hours after it arrives, so your mail is always a day behind.”
If you have to visit a post office in person, wear a mask, keep your distance and avoid touching surfaces
To avoid transmission, try to touch as few surfaces as possible. If you can use an elbow or a foot to close the door instead of your hand, it could keep you that much safer. Accordingly, you should try to avoid sharing things like pens, scanners and tablets.
Consider kiosk or remote pick-up service
Services like Amazon Lockers and other kiosks allow you to retrieve your package without the assistance of an actual person. Not only does this cut down on the transmission of coronavirus, but it also allows you to better protect your mail without human interference.
Quarantine your mail at home
You can quarantine your mail in your home, too. Select a lesser-used area in your home that you can dedicate to your mail. You can then place all packages in this space for 24 hours until all harmful particles are no longer a danger. This can be especially important if you have seniors in your home or anyone else with a medical issue that could be severely impacted by coronavirus.
Wear gloves if you want, but definitely wash your hands after
Even when we're not in the middle of a pandemic, envelopes and packages get pretty dirty on their way to your home, so make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.
If it'll make you feel better, you can disinfect your mail
If you cannot wait to quarantine your mail, or if you just want to be extra cautious, you can disinfect it yourself. Choose from the EPA’s more than 300 approved coronavirus disinfectants to remove any traces of coronavirus that may be lingering on your mail.
Current Postal Service coronavirus delays
Coronavirus has created a real pickle for Americans, especially during an election year. As November quickly draws near, there is greater and greater scrutiny being placed on the United States Postal Service.
The problem is twofold: too much mail and not enough labor to process it. The system is plagued by severe backlogs from the sudden influx of mail in all its forms. Postal workers are struggling to keep up, but they are not immune to the virus, either, and there have been significant losses in the USPS workforce due to COVID. However, USPS admits to only “minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Both the CDC and USPS warn about mail from China, which is the original Ground Zero for coronavirus and continues to fight dramatic infection rates. Understandably, mail to China and Hong Kong are experiencing the worst delays, and Priority Mail Express International to these two countries remains suspended indefinitely. Mail to and from travel-restricted European countries is also experiencing significant delays.
When arranging for shipments, consider your options for mail carriers, including companies like USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL.
The bottom line
Experts say coronavirus can only live on paper and cardboard for up to 24 hours, but in these uncertain times, one can never be too careful. To minimize your risk, consider contactless deliveries, mail quarantine, and always, always wash your hands.