Pandemic Halloween trick-or-treat safety: Washing candy and other studies

Halloween is unique this year: it falls on a weekend, meaning children will be off from school to celebrate, it will take place during a full moon, and, of course, it coincides with a very contagious respiratory virus driving a global pandemic. Public health officials have made it clear that trick-or-treating and other usual festivities aren't acceptable this year, but what are the alternatives and how can you help keep yourself safe?

The risk

The global pandemic involves a virus called SARS-CoV-2, which is contagious and spread through respiratory droplets, some of which may hang in the air for relatively long periods of time. Close, and especially prolonged, contact with an infected person drastically increases one's odds of contracting the virus, though exposure can also take place by touching contaminated surfaces.

For this reason, the public is advised to wear properly fitted and high-quality face masks, to regularly wash their hands, and, of course, to keep a distance from strangers. That makes traditional Halloween festivities like trick-or-treating, parties, and corn mazes high-risk, something the CDC has emphasized in multiple advisories published this summer.

What the CDC says

The CDC points out that in addition to COVID-19, those who head out on Saturday to celebrate Halloween must also be mindful of the influenza risk, as well. Quite obviously, everyone is advised to wear masks and to maintain a 6ft distance from others. Experts point out that costume masks do not protect users in the same way as proper medical and cloth masks.

The safest Halloween activity is the one that involves staying home and celebrating with others who live with you, leaving other get-togethers to video chat. If you insist on going out to trick-or-treat, however, the CDC says that it should ideally take place outdoors, that treats should be bagged for each kid to take, and that one must be mindful to wash their hands before touching the treats.

Of course, it is also important to wash your hands when you're out and about, including whenever you touch other people or objects. The best way to do this frequently is carrying hand sanitizer that contains 60-percent or more alcohol. When you get home, however, the CDC notes that you should be sure to properly wash your hands with soap and water before eating the treats.

The CDC is ultimately encouraging the public to come up with alternative Halloween activities this year, ones that decrease the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus or spreading it to others. This includes things like outdoor costume parties and a haunted walk-thru where everyone can stay socially distanced, home-based treat scavenger hunts, and having a movie night with household members.

Other studies

The CDC isn't the only entity focused on keeping the public safe this holiday season. We've seen some studies focused on Halloween specifically, including one published today, October 30, by the American Society for Microbiology.

As part of their study, researchers evaluated whether it is possible to mitigate the risk of eating contaminated candy by washing both the candy and one's hands at home. To test this, a total of 10 COVID-19 patients who had zero-to-moderate symptoms were tasked with touching wrapped candy, including while coughing, with unwashed and washed hands.

The researchers ultimately found that it is possible for the public to mitigate the risk of this candy by using a simple 1:50 mix of ordinary dish soap and water — this would be, for example, three ounces of dish soap mixed in a gallon of water. The candy was submerged in the solution, let to sit at least one minute, then removed and rinsed.

The number of candies with detectable virus dropped from 60-percent to 10-percent with washing in cases where the candy was originally touched by a sick person who didn't wash their hands. When the sick person first washed their hands before touching the candy, the washing process was found to reduce the viral RNA load to 'near zero.'

Of course, it's important to note that most COVID-19 cases are the result of droplet exposure, not touching contaminated surfaces. For this reason, it is important to maintain a distance from other people and to wear a face mask when in public or at events with others.