Are dead bodies contagious? Your COVID-19 questions answered

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We’re answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network. So far we’ve received more than 20,000 emails from all corners of the country.

Can the coronavirus spread from a dead body?

Fran J. sent this question about whether the virus can jump from the dead to the living.

Right now, Health Canada has no clear answer, but here’s what we do know:

SARS-CoV-2 (the proper name for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19) can remain infectious on different surfaces for varying amounts of time

“So, it would be possible that the virus could persist and remain infectious in or on the body of someone who has died,” says Dr. Ilan Schwartz, infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at the University of Alberta. 

During the first SARS outbreak in 2003, data suggested the virus could remain infectious in bodily fluids such as blood, urine and feces for 72 to 96 hours, says Jason Kindrachuk, microbiologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. 

“This doesn’t perfectly mimic what happens in a person, but it gives us some ideas on how stable coronaviruses are in different bodily fluids and may give some information on SARS-CoV-2,” Kindrachuk said.

This means it is still possible for someone who handles or touches a body infected with the virus to also become infected, says Schwartz.

Patrick Curry, the acting president of Nova Scotia’s Funeral Service Association tells CBC News “Things have changed quite drastically.” He adds it is important to care for people who have lost loved ones, but also stay away from them physically. 

Funeral services, especially rituals that call for the body to be washed and shrouded, are adapting to the pandemic.

Is it safer to use the self check-out or the cashier?

This great question comes from Alice in Ottawa. 

“Although self-check out allows you to distance from others, it also requires touching more surfaces,” says Siyun Wang, associate professor of food safety engineering at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems.

But Wang says the risk of infection at the grocery store is low, if you “go where there are fewer people and shop efficiently, because person-to-person contact is the number one concern.” She also says it’s good to minimize the amount of time you spend in the store and to use a touchless payment method.

Jeffrey Farber, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety and a professor at the University of Guelph adds: “In both cases, consumers should be wiping their hands with a disinfectant wipe before they leave the store at the exit, and then again when they come home, and again after they put the groceries away when they get home.” 

He also reminds everyone to wash their hands before they eat.

WATCH | How to grocery shop during the pandemic:

With physical distancing implemented across Toronto due to COVID-19, Ali Chiasson has tips on how to stay safe while grocery shopping. 2:36

My family was sick in December and January.  How do we know it wasn’t COVID-19?

Rebecca T. is wondering whether she and her family could have been infected with the coronavirus. She says they all had a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Our COVID@cbc.ca inbox is flooded with similar questions.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease physician in Edmonton, says it’s “not impossible” her family had COVID-19. 

“But at the same time we were in the throes of a really bad flu season [in December and January] so it’s a pretty high likelihood it was influenza. 

“Now people who had a compatible illness during the period that COVID was around would be possibly able to be tested to see if they have antibodies against the infection, which would document whether you’d previously been infected or not.”

All provinces are looking at how we might start using that testing once it’s available, she adds.

“So the answer is that some people might be able to find out if they’d been infected even if they didn’t have a swab, but not quite yet.” 

For more, watch the CBC special COVID-19 in Canada.

How long does someone who is asymptomatic remain contagious?

New research suggests asymptomatic carriers are adding to the spread of the virus. This means you don’t have to feel sick, to make others sick.

How long is a “silent spreader” contagious? This is a tough question because, without symptoms, it is very difficult to determine whether someone actually has the virus unless they’re tested.

Right now, some provinces and territories are testing for asymptomatic carriers among health-care providers and those who live in long-term care homes.

That’s one of the reasons why Health Canada is recommending a 14-day self-isolation for anyone who believes they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“This is a sneaky virus,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu.  “Some people don’t feel ill at all. And that’s why… physical distancing is so critically important. We have to act as if we are all carrying this virus.”

COVID-19 patients with mild or no symptoms were about half as infectious as symptomatic ones, according to Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York, who examined China’s outbreak. But because they felt fine, they travelled and infected more people. Read more about asymptomatic transmission research.

We’re also answering your questions every night on The National. Doctors answer your questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and if you can become infected in a public bathroom. Watch below:

Doctors answer your questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and if you can become infected in a public bathroom. 3:37

Wednesday we answered questions about antibody testing and safely removing rubber gloves

Keep your questions coming by emailing COVID@cbc.ca

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