Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
During the holidays, I usually bake about six or seven family cookie recipes for a large collection of cookies on a festive tray. Because I make a lot, I always have extras and typically give a bag to our postal worker and a plate to our neighbors. Taking cookies to my family isn’t going to happen this year, as we will not travel, but I’m still making cookies and will have some to share. Is this a safe thing to do during a pandemic? How can I make people on the receiving end feel safe about accepting the cookies?
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
I think you can absolutely do this, and it would be great if you did. Cookie exchanges generally can be done safely, and I’m all for keeping them happening in a year where lots of other traditions won’t happen. But I should get granular on safety considerations, and run through some hypotheticals.
This situation speaks to a few misconceptions about risk, which exist at least partly because of changes in public-health messaging over the course of the pandemic. So let’s consider the aspects of safety by breaking down cookie exchange into its etymological roots: cookie and exchange.
First, cookie. The cookies themselves shouldn’t be a concern. COVID-19 isn’t a foodborne illness. That is, unlike salmonella, E. coli, or another bug that tends to live in food, the coronavirus doesn’t remain viable in food for long because, like any virus, it can’t reproduce outside of animal cells. However delicious the cookies may be, the virus won’t be able to feed off of them and will degrade pretty quickly. The exact length of time depends on how much virus is there to begin with, but the fact is that this one seems not to persist in sufficient quantities to infect people.
You also have another safety consideration working in your favor: Baking is essentially the same process that hospitals use to sterilize medical instruments. Extreme heat can quickly kill the virus. Just three minutes at above 149 degrees Fahrenheit has been shown to do the job. I don’t recommend baking if you know you’re sick, but even if you were unknowingly contagious and breathing heavily and singing while mixing the ingredients, any viral particles you managed to plant in the dough should be destroyed within seconds in a 400-degree oven. This cookie exchange should not turn into a Typhoid Mary situation.
Once you take the cookies out and let them cool, use a spatula to put them onto trays, and you should be in the clear. If you use your hands to dole out the cookies, you could hypothetically transfer some microbes onto the cookies. Theoretically, if your hand was coated in the virus, and you aggressively palmed a cookie and handed it directly to someone who immediately ate it, that could be dangerous. But so far, there have been no documented cases of food poisoning with the coronavirus. Surface transmission hasn’t factored as heavily in transmission as we initially believed.
Keep in mind, though, that other microbes can live on baked goods, sometimes for months. You can transfer common gastrointestinal illnesses such as hepatitis A by touching food with your hands and then giving it to other people. Washing your hands regularly during the baking process can help minimize that risk. If you have to use your finger to slide a sticky cookie off the spatula, don’t panic. But for the most part, pandemic or not, avoid touching communal food of any sort.
While the cookie part of this isn’t an issue, the exchange part is. The real concern about cookie exchanges comes from gathering with people. I know it’s tempting to watch people eat the cookies you’ve made and to have them tell you they’re delicious. You deserve it after making seven kinds of cookies. But don’t get caught up in the moment and let things escalate into a cookie festival. Nothing resembling a traditional holiday party will be safe, even under the auspices of exchanging cookies.
Though surfaces are not a primary concern, air is. The virus travels very easily indoors, through a mix of tiny droplets and airborne particles. Insofar as COVID-19 has been tied to food, it has been a result of people coming together to eat, produce, and prepare it, and many clusters have spread among restaurant staff who have to spend prolonged periods indoors in close contact with one another. Transmission is not happening from a brief delivery. So exchange the cookies and go. Speak at a distance, ideally outdoors. If you must be indoors, wear a mask the entire time, meet in as large and well-ventilated of a room as possible, and keep the conversation efficient. Don’t treat other people like they’re toxic, but like you respect them too much to get too close.
I know this is miserable advice. I never make cookies, and if I did, they’d probably be terrible, but I’m so desperate for human contact that I’d try it if it meant I could go to a cookie exchange. But the coronavirus is now hospitalizing and killing more people than at any other point in the pandemic, and it’s still getting worse. Any given local hospital may soon be out of beds, if it’s not already, and many doctors and nurses are depleted, working themselves to the bone. They need everyone not to burden them further by hosting a florid cookie exchange.
But now more than ever, a lot of people could use some cookies. Not just health-care workers, but so many other people who are enduring hardship. Food insecurity in the United States is as high as it’s been since the Great Depression. Generally it’s more efficient and practical to give money to food pantries than to bake cookies for people who need essentials. But if you do end up with extra cookies that would otherwise go to waste, they could make someone’s year just a little bit better. Happy baking.
“Paging Dr. Hamblin” is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.