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Can you catch the coronavirus from handling cash?

Dr. Leana Wen on "The Takeout"

The Federal Reserve is delaying processing dollars that have been repatriated from Asia. The Louvre Museum in Paris isn't accepting cash from visitors. And Iran has urged its citizens to stop using bank notes over fears the coronavirus can be transmitted to humans through contaminated objects like cash. 

Public health experts believe the novel coronavirus, which causes the potentially deadly COVID-19 disease, is transmittable through "fomites" — surfaces, including paper money, that have been handled by an infected person. 

"The belief is that these viruses can stay on surfaces in their fully active states for at least 10 days. That includes cash and all kinds of other surfaces that people normally touch," Dr. Sanjay Maggirwar, chair of the George Washington University School of Medicine's department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, told CBS MoneyWatch. "So certainly with the coronavirus, cash handling is a concern."

The virus, which has infected more than 100,000 people and killed 3,400, is most commonly transmitted through droplets when someone who is infected coughs, sneezes or comes into close contact with another person. But the Fed and other institutions and businesses appear to be responding to the likelihood that individuals can become infected if they touch contaminated cash. 

The Fed on Friday confirmed to CBS MoneyWatch that since February 21 it has been setting aside shipments of cash from Asia for a period of 7 to 10 days before processing and recirculating the deposits. It is doing so "out of an abundance of caution" and on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a spokesperson said. 

The Fed has a contingency reserve of cash should it be needed, its spokesperson added. 

Coronavirus: Steps to stay safe

Experts say such policies can make sense, given that other coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, were transmitted through fomites, according to the World Health Organization. "It is good hygiene practice to wash your hands after handling money, especially if eating or handling food," WHO said in a statement, while emphasizing that it "did not say cash was transmitting coronavirus." 

Some doctors say better safe than sorry. "Droplets can live on surfaces, including subway seats and dollar bills. It seems like it could be a path for transmission because it's something people commonly share and handle," said Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. 

As a result, some public health experts are recommending that the public avoid handling cash entirely and instead pay for goods and services with credit cards or contactless modes of payment when possible. 

"Credit cards are personal, so no one touches them [in many retail transactions] other than the owner," Dr. Maggirwar said. "Cash exchanges hands and you never know how far that particular bill as traveled." 

For those Americans who work as cashiers, or regularly handle cash as part of their jobs, he recommends wearing single-use latex gloves and frequent hand washing.

But the cash-free life won't work for everyone. Fewer cash transactions can freeze out low-income people who have no access to credit.

The backlash against going cashless

Nationally, about 6.5% of American households lack any bank accounts, while another 18.7% are underbanked, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Some cities and states have already passed laws banning local businesses from not accepting cash

"Not everyone has a bank account, and there are some very important equity issues if we start encouraging cashless transactions," said Dr. Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at New York University's School of Global Public Health. 

"Some people don't have a choice, so to say, 'You should only use cashless transactions,' is not sensitive to their circumstances," Ompad said. 

Instead, she offered a more low-tech piece of advice: "No matter what, if you've touched something, don't touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth, and wash your hands." 

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