SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A county emergency management official in South Dakota is warning people to wash products from China and stop popping air-filled packaging to avoid any risk of catching the coronavirus, even though public health officials don’t have the same concerns.
Bryan Anderson, emergency management director in Day County, located in northeast South Dakota, posted his recommendation on the county website under the heading “coronavirus self-protection procedures.”
“One concern I have would be packages coming from China,” he wrote, recommending the public not pop packing material filled with air because it “could be contaminated,” handle products with protective gloves and if possible, disinfect or wash them with hot, soapy water.
“The Bubble Wrap could possibly have air from that region,” Anderson told the Forum News Service. “Which — we don’t know. I don’t have any scientific basis that we can say, ‘Oh yes, this virus can be transmitted by Bubble Wrap, you know?’
“We’re just trying to come up with what we can do to make the general public think. 'Hey, we don’t want to expose you, so do the little things that are just common sense.'"
Anderson’s fears aren’t well-founded, according to state and federal public health professionals, and don't have a scientific basis. Those concerns have circulated on social media, however, partly due to a joke post from a satire website.
People, not things, are the real virus-transmission risk, said Josh Clayton, state epidemiologist at the South Dakota Department of Health.
"The virus is not that stable outside a person who is infected, so the likelihood would be very, very, very low of anything like that happening, to the point where, I don’t think we should worry about this as a risk," Clayton said.
The coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, is spread through respiratory droplets — not via air alone — and the virus just doesn’t last very long on surfaces, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” the CDC said on its coronavirus FAQ page.
'Please don't share misinformation like this'
Anderson told the Forum News Service his post wasn’t based on recommendations from state or federal health officials, but was the result of conversations with counterparts in the South Dakota Health Alert Network about measures the public could take to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
“It’s my personal view, it’s not anything I got from any kind of officials," he said. "It’s what we were snowballing, like, what can we tell people."
Clayton confirmed Anderson's recommendations weren't proposed or disseminated by state public health officials via the network. The South Dakota Health Alert Network is a online-based system designed to disseminate important information to first responders, medical professionals and others in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack. It also provides a platform to connect those participants to communicate.
Those who talked agreed on recommending the usual cold and flu season protection: wash your hands, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, he said. But they also talked about whether people should be worried about products and air-filled packaging from China. So Anderson decided to include that concern in his recommendations.
But Anderson’s recommendations were amplified on Facebook, posted by the Day County Courthouse page on Tuesday, Feb. 25 as "an important message from emergency management," in all capital letters.
Not all the county's residents, however, seemed not to be buying into Anderson's concerns. As of Friday morning, nearly all commenters were calling for the post to be taken down for lack of evidence.
“Please don’t share misinformation like this without verifying it with a reputable source,” said one commenter.
Asked if he was concerned about spreading misinformation, Anderson emphasized how much was still unknown about the coronavirus, as he understood that to be the case.
“The people in my district, they know me well enough. It’s not like I’m not trying to create a panic, or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just, think outside the box and try to protect yourself.”
Clayton, the South Dakota state epidemiologist, said he didn't doubt Anderson was trying his best to help his population. And it won't really hurt anything to scrub products from China, he said. But misinformation, as a rule, doesn't help anyone.
"I see where they're trying to trying to be helpful," he said, referring to Anderson's recommendations. "But that’s not as helpful as they intended.”