Sealing envelopes with a lick has always left a funny taste in the mouth, but in the Godforsaken year 2020, could it also turn your holiday cards into a superspreader event?
For months, we’ve been seeing warnings — some more official than others — on social media about the risks associated with licking your envelopes during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, election officials from Washington to New Jersey asked voters to use a wet sponge or cloth to seal mail-in ballots rather than risk spreading the coronavirus, which can live in saliva droplets.
With holiday card season upon us, I called on epidemiologist Dr. John Segreti, medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, for some clarity: Can you send someone COVID-19 by licking an envelope before mailing it? Can you catch COVID-19 from an envelope someone else licked?
“If there is any risk at all, it’s got to be incredibly low,” Segreti said. “Inanimate surfaces play a very small part in transmission of COVID. The vast majority of cases are person-to-person, spread through respiratory droplets.”
A National Institutes of Health study in May looked at the sustainability of the coronavirus on various surfaces and found the virus can last about three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces, one day on cardboard and about four hours on a copper surface.
“But even if the virus is live on surfaces, that doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to cause infection, or the virus is healthy enough to cause infection,” Segreti said. “There was a lot of concern in the spring, when COVID first started appearing, and since that time it’s become pretty obvious that transmission through surface contact can potentially happen, but it’s nowhere near as common as we feared it might be.”
The best path to avoid catching COVID-19 from a surface, including your holiday cards, is frequent hand-washing, Segreti said.
“That’s why we recommend hand hygiene,” he said. “The best thing to do is wash your hands after handling the mail, which will markedly decrease any small risk that’s there — and, again, it’s a very, very small risk.”
However you decide to seal your envelopes, the time it takes to send holiday cards is well spent, particularly during such an isolated time.
“COVID-19 has caused intense stress and trauma for everyone, whether they have been sick themselves or not,” said Abigail S. Hardin, assistant professor in Rush’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “One of the best ways to combat depression, stress and trauma is to connect meaningfully with friends and family by sharing thoughts, feelings and messages of support. Holiday cards can be an excellent way to connect, especially if they include more than just a greeting and a picture.”
I love them. And it’s a relief to hear that with proper hand-washing, they’re not likely to spread anything more than cheer.