The coronavirus has severely impacted daily life as employees are working from home, schools are shut down, and restaurants are limited to carryout services. But the mail service is one aspect of everyday life that is continuing as usual.
The USPS has reassured the public the coronavirus cannot be spread through letters and packages. The agency posted on its website that according to the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the Surgeon General of the United States, “there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.”
That reassurance was issued after two mail carriers in Westchester County, New York, tested positive for the virus. The Rockland/Westchester Journal News, citing a postal service spokesman, said both employees would remain off the job until cleared by doctors.
However, tens of thousands of people have since signed a petition calling on the postal service to take extra steps to protect mail carriers and other employees. For example, the petition calls for older employees and those with underlying health conditions to be allowed to stay home with pay in order to avoid further spread. Signers also say that by keeping certain workers at their posts, they could be putting customers at risk as well.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Postal Service Says It Is Experiencing Minor Operational Changes From the Coronavirus
Heavy asked the manager of public relations for the Postmaster-General, Dave Partenheimer, whether the postal service had plans to suspend service due to the coronavirus. His response was a strong “no.”
It is business as usual at the United States Postal Service. The bulk of its services are operating at normal capacity. As of March 28, the federal agency explained on its website that it was experiencing “only minor operational impacts” resulting from mail coming from or going to China, as well as “European countries subject to restricted passenger airline travel.”
Partenheimer explained to Heavy via email the agency has localized plans to keep mail delivery operational in case of national emergencies. That includes pandemic situations.
“In the event they are required, the activation of localized continuity of operations plans depend on the specific effects of an emergency in an impacted area,” Partenheimer said.
“Due to the variance in possibilities and factors, it would be impossible to predict what the effect of such emergencies would be on a specific customers’ mailing prior to the event, but during the past few years alone our planning has enabled us to continue or quickly reestablish mail operations in regions facing the impact of strong hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, etc., and they have been prepared to respond to pandemic related circumstances as well.”
The Postal Service Was Following CDC Guidelines to Keep Mail Delivery Employees Healthy, But Carriers Are Calling For Greater Action
The U.S. Postal Service has been operating based on guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control to keep its employees, including mail delivery drivers, healthy. The agency sent out its “Coronavirus 2020 Pandemic Influenza Plan” to the National Postal Mail Handlers Union at the beginning of March.
The document included the basic recommendations health officials have been advocating since the outbreak began. Employees were reminded to thoroughly wash their hands often, avoid touching their faces, cough or sneeze into a tissue or elbow, and to stay home if feeling sick. The USPS advised its affiliates to send any workers exhibiting symptoms home and to “monitor sick leave for observable trends that may indicate a COVID-19 outbreak among postal employees.”
The USPS said it would provide surgical masks to employees upon request. However, the document explained that the CDC does not recommend healthy people wear masks as a method to avoid contagion.
But as more states shutter businesses and more people remain isolated in their homes, mail carriers are calling for greater protections for themselves as well. Nearly 50,000 people have signed a petition launched on March on the Coworker website.
Signers are asking the postal service to provide “hazard pay,” which is time and a half, for employees remaining on the job. The petition also calls on the USPS to allow workers over age 65, those with underlying health conditions, and employees caring for high-risk relatives to be granted leave with pay for the duration of the pandemic. The employees ask to suspend mail delivery to “nursing homes, assisted living facilities, clinics, and other locations where carriers may come into contact with vulnerable populations or with people who already have the virus.”
Experts Say the Coronavirus Is Unlikely to Spread From Packages Or Letters
Health officials say it’s safe to continue to handle letters and packages sent through the mail service. The U.S. Postal Service, citing the Centers for Disease Control, says there is “likely very low risk that COVID-19 can be spread from products or packaging shipped from China, because of poor survivability of coronaviruses on surfaces.”
According to a new study supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19 can survive on surfaces such as cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours.
One of the investigators involved with the study was Vincent Munster, the chief of the Virus Ecology Section of Rocky Mountain Laboratories. He says a virus loses strength the longer it sits on an inanimate object. For example, imagine an infected person sneezed and the droplets landed on a nearby desk. Another person could become infected if they touch the desk within minutes, but far less likely to become sick if they touch the desk the following day.
“The risk of becoming infected via these routes of transmission reduces over time. That window of becoming infected is highest in the first 10 minutes, or one hour or two hours,” Munster explained to the Washington Post. As for whether people could become infected from mail deliveries, he said it’s not probably but cautioned, “There’s never zero risk if the person who gave you the package just sneezed on that package one second ago.”
Dr. Darshan Shah, the medical director for Next Health, further expanded on this in an interview with Refinery 29. “Although theoretically it’s possible for coronavirus to get onto a package at the source of delivery, it’s virtually impossible [for the virus to survive] due to the package going through harsh conditions in transit. Mechanical, temperature, and humidity changes would likely kill the virus before it arrives at your doorstep.”
Dr. Jack Caravanos from the NYU School of Global Public Health also told CBS News, “At this time, I truly believe viral transmission by contaminated packages is very unlikely. I would not take any special precautions opening or handling packages or envelopes.”