Over the past couple of years, the world’s top scientists have learned a great deal about the COVID-19 virus, including how it spreads from person to person. In the beginning, a dearth of legitimate research and data led both the public and public health officials to be suspicious of everything, since no one knew for sure how the virus could be transmitted. Ordinary activities, from pushing a supermarket shopping cart to shaking hands, turned into potential opportunities to catch and spread the virus.
Paper money and credit cards were also viewed as possible vectors, and these perceptions linger. But can a person really catch COVID from a dollar bill or a small piece of plastic? If so, should we all permanently move to contactless payments?
A new Brigham Young University study sheds light on the situation, revealing the odds and allaying unfounded concerns.
Can you get COVID from cash?
Way back in 2020, the World Health Organization warned that cash could be a contributor to the spread of COVID. Consequently, it promoted paperless spending options such as contactless payments instead of using paper bills. Some people even began soaking dollar bills in Lysol to sterilize them. Chinese banks began disinfecting and isolating used banknotes with UV lights.
The BYU study, however, absolves paper currency of potential harm. The data it derived found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is almost immediately nonviable when it is deposited on a cash banknote. In fact, it was nearly impossible to detect just 30 minutes after it was placed, with the virus being reduced by 99.9993 percent. No live virus at all was detected 24 and 48 hours afterward.
Therefore, the merchants who wanted to protect their employees and customers from the spread of COVID-19 by disallowing cash transactions can now rest assured that the preventative measure may have been a kind gesture but didn’t actually do anything to help abate transmission.
According to Richard Robison, the BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology who authored the study, the unfounded concern was driven by people who conducted no credible research before disseminating the information.
“These suppositions were made without any data behind them whatsoever,” says Robison. “It showed that the problems of blindly going down the road without anything to back it up. People and companies were making decisions based on no or bad data. So we decided to do the research ourselves.”
Can you get COVID from plastic?
OK, cash is fine, but what about plastic payment tools? With the number of times people hold and use these items, they must be rife with dangerous germs. Early in the pandemic, many news sources, including this one, recommended cleaning your credit cards to protect against the spread of the virus. A year later, CNBC was still advising cleaning and disinfecting credit cards as a way to offset COVID.
However, the BYU study found the live virus was reduced by 90 percent on money cards at the 30-minute mark. The reduction rate was 99.6 percent after four hours, and 99.96 percent after 24 hours. The virus was still detectable on the money cards 48 hours later. If those statistics still sound alarming, Robison says there is no reason to panic.
With what we know now about how COVID spreads, it should be business as usual when it comes to using financial products.
— Richard Robisonprofessor of microbiology, Brigham Young University
“You just don’t get infected very often from fomites [inanimate objects that carry and spread disease and infectious agents] such as countertops, hard surfaces, and credit cards,” he says. “We found plenty of data to back up that that’s not how this virus is transmitted. It just doesn’t happen from this type of secondary transfer.”
For example, imagine a person has the COVID virus on their hands, Robinson says. They touch a credit card, contaminate it with the virus, and then give the card to you. After holding the card, you touch your eyes, which are entry points for the virus. You still won’t be infected.
“There are diseases that are transmitted this way but COVID isn’t one of them,” says Robison.
COVID is in the air, not on financial instruments
According to Robison, you are most likely to contact COVID from what is floating in the air, not living on your money or credit cards. “The particles and droplets hang around for hours after someone sneezes or coughs,” he says. “That’s how you can catch it.”
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, whose work focuses on Infectious diseases and pandemic policy, agrees. “There is no major risk of contracting COVID via credit cards or cash,” says Adalja. “It is an inefficient mode of transmission for the virus.”
While the longevity of airborne droplets and aerosols sounds alarming, Robison also stresses the natural lifecycle of COVID. He explains that though the disease may be more contagious now than it had been in the past, it’s also less virulent. “It’s not in the best interest of the virus to keep you alone in your bed,” he says.
There is no reason, then, to adopt any extraordinary protection measures when using money or credit cards, assures Robison, because those items are not an efficient way for the virus to be transmitted. The present data doesn’t support the need to wear special gloves when handling these financial tools, nor washing or sanitizing your paper bills or plastic cards.
It’s safe to resume traditional payment practices
Traditional payment transaction practices the public took for granted prior to 2020 can safely resume. “It’s important when making risk calculations to actually understand where the risk is and isn’t,” says Adalja. That includes companies accepting both physical credit cards and cash as a method of payment again, and individuals paying with them when it’s convenient. According to Adalja, the risk of using them is negligible.
Not everyone has expanded their transaction options yet, however. For example, United Airlines still was not accepting credit cards, cash or even mobile payments onboard flights as of May 2022, more than two years after that cautionary measure was adopted by the airline. (Most airlines seem to be accepting plastic for online purchases now, although some will not accept cash.) The only way to make onboard purchases on most United flights since March 2020 has been to preload a credit or debit card into your account.
But times change, and so does scientific information. As it does, consumers and companies should take steps to move on, says Robison. “With what we know now about how COVID spreads, it should be business as usual when it comes to using financial products,” he says. “The data simply does not support avoiding cash or credit cards.”
The bottom line
Whether or not the pandemic has permanently altered our payment practices remains to be seen. But plastic cards are not carrying and transmitting COVID, according to an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence. You are far more likely to get this particular virus from what comes out of the mouth of the person handing you the card, than the card itself.