As country reopens, a question remains: Can coronavirus spread on surfaces?

The main way that the virus spreads is from person to person, the CDC says.

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By Erika Edwards

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the wording on its website earlier this month to emphasize that the coronavirus is not easily spread through contact with contaminated surfaces.

The change, made May 11 with no public announcement, was to a headline on the agency's page about how the virus spreads, and specifically, whether a person can get sick from touching a surface with the virus on it.

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There was no specific reason given for the update and there doesn't appear to be new data about whether the virus on surfaces is very infectious.

CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund told NBC News the change was made during an internal review of its website and was meant to "clarify other types of spread beyond person to person."

The information below the new headline did not change. It reads: "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus."

The section, which follows information about how the virus spreads between people, was originally headlined "Spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects" but now says "The virus does not spread easily in other ways."

Still, that minor alteration prompted questions that are all the more relevant now that all 50 states have begun the reopening process: What is known about how the virus is transmitted? Can I catch COVID-19 by touching surfaces in public? Is it still useful to wipe down groceries, mailed packages or other store-bought products?

"We know that coronavirus is quite capable of remaining viable on surfaces," said Cameron Wolfe, an infectious diseases expert and an associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. "It's less clear how readily transmissible that may be between people."

In other words, it's unclear how long those viral particles remain in a state where they could make someone sick.

For example, person A, who is actively sick with COVID-19, coughs on a door handle, covering it with infectious respiratory droplets. Can the viral particles in those droplets survive long enough for person B to touch that door handle, walk around with those particles on their hands, before finally touching their mouth or nose? And how much live virus is really needed to infect person B?

Wolfe said that such studies are ongoing, and that the possibility of catching COVID-19 from a surface "should not be ignored."

Indeed, the CDC still recommends routinely cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

But, he added, "I suspect you're probably getting less bang for your buck by washing down your fruit and vegetables, than you would from being conscious of masking and perhaps washing your hands" both before and after trips to the supermarket.

COVID-19 spread

While more research is needed, there is widespread agreement that the coronavirus can be passed easily from person to person through coughs, sneezes and even talking — particularly when people are in close proximity to one another, within about six feet.

Those respiratory droplets "can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs," the CDC says on its website, adding that infected people who don't have symptoms can also be contagious.

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Wolfe said the best ways to limit the spread is through a trifecta of personal infectious disease control: social distancing, frequent hand-washing and proper use of face coverings.

"Coughing, sneezing, right up in the face of someone and not socially distancing," he said, are the most likely modes of transmission.

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