Can I get COVID from double-dipping a chip? UI expert answers holiday questions

AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin
AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin

IOWA CITY — With Iowa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations up again Tuesday — and its ventilated patients jumping by 20 overnight, setting a record at 155 — University of Iowa Health Care leaders are reporting strained resources and asking again for help.

“Our staff are tired. They’ve been working through this for months,” UIHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Brennan told The Gazette, reporting her hospitals and clinics’ surge plan has put the campus in an “OK” position for available beds. “But I do want people to recognize that the health care worker today is in a tough spot.”

So Brennan — like other UIHC executives — is urging Iowans to make wise choices this week with Thanksgiving and its tempting traditions.

With the holiday near, she took questions about the coronavirus from The Gazette:

Q: With university students heading home, and perhaps more Iowans traveling by car or plane, what is the most up-to-date information on how this virus spreads?

A: “It’s droplet based,” she said, noting masks have proved effective in quelling the spread and protecting others as well as the wearer, to some degree. “We should still be very cautious about washing our hands and touching our face. But I haven’t myself been washing down the groceries and that sort of thing — other than what you would normally do.”

Q: If the virus spreads via droplets, how long can they remain aerosolized? In other words, can people get the virus by being in a room where an infected person coughed or sneezed — even if they’re not within 6 feet of that person?

A: “We don’t know for sure. But there are concerns that, depending on the air recirculation, you could have virus in the air for long enough for someone to be infected.”


Brennan said that’s the biggest concern in large group gatherings “because then you have the likelihood of having more than one person who potentially has it and could transmit it.”

Stressing the importance of air circulation, Brennan said that recent airline data has shown “the risk of getting it (in an airplane) is actually pretty low because the circulation of air is quite good on an airplane.”

Q: The governor’s COVID-19 proclamations — including her most recent orders — cite numbers of individuals allowed or prohibited in groups. Is there an actual threshold of attendees that makes a gathering more risky?

A: “The safest thing is to stay to those that you live with,” Brennan said. “And perhaps the addition of people that are following all the safety standards, as you are … people in your bubble.”

Acknowledging humans need interaction, Brennan addressed agreements some families have made with each other to follow specific safety standards to allow more interaction.

“That’s a fairly low-risk activity, although it’s not a no-risk,” she said. “Once you start to bring people in, you have the concern that they might not want to tell me that they were out at a party a week ago. So I think you always have to be a little skeptical about whether people have the potential to have COVID if you don’t live with them and don’t know what their practices are.”

Q: How can people check the prevalence of spread in a given community?

A: Georgia Tech has an event planning website “that takes into consideration the prevalence in your county,” Brennan said. “You can just type in, ‘I’m going to have 15 people,’ and it will tell you the likelihood that at least one person in that group will have COVID.”

The site is


Q: Iowa State University, about to send home tens of thousands of students for the semester, is advising they quarantine for two weeks once they arrive. Is that optimal? And, if so, what does that mean within a household?

A: “If the parents are above 50 or have medical problems, you certainly want to protect them,” Brennan said. “So wearing masks in the house is good. If there are people that are not normally in your household in your house, wearing masks is good. Remember the highest risk times are when you’re eating because you have to take your mask off to eat.”

Q: What about dishing up food from the same communal bowl, grabbing appetizers from the same plate, or dunking chips in the same dip?

A: Double-dipping is a pre-COVID no-no, Brennan said. But experts also haven’t found food to be a major source of transmission.

“The individual servings are so that someone can take it and then go somewhere else,” she said. “I think the biggest risk with eating is your mask is off and you’re in close proximity to people.”

Q: For those having to quarantine because they’ve been in close contact with a positive case, why the 14-day wait and why the advice to test on days three and 10?

A: For starters, she said, those without symptoms should quarantine because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “59 percent of transmissions are from asymptomatic individuals.”

“The reason for that 14 days is that seems to be the time where the vast, vast, vast majority of people after an exposure would become positive,” Brennan said. “Beyond 14 days, the likelihood of you becoming positive is extremely small.”


UIHC tests on day three and day 10 because “14 days is where the curve really falls off.”

Q: What is the most common time frame for a close contact to convert to a positive case?

A: “We track it in data from our employees who have had an exposure,” Brennan said. “And it’s changed over time. But it’s between that four- to six-day range. Right now ours seems to be hovering just over four days.”

Q: With vaccine candidates moving toward emergency use authorization and different therapeutics emerging, when do you foresee the country and this community getting back to some degree of normal? Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak?

A: “I would say the light is visible now. But it’s still a long way away. I do want people to recognize that it’s going to take time to get enough people vaccinated.”

Q: In the meantime, do you have suggestions for managing this holiday season?

A: “I’ve said many times that maybe this year is a year that we make new traditions,” she said. “Have a virtual dessert where everyone makes their dessert and you call or you Zoom in … and it’s almost like you’re there.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.