COVID-19 can live on in the cadavers of infected patients long after they have died, according to two new studies, The New York Times reported.
Healthcare workers, medical examiners, pathologists and grieving family members should use caution when in contact with dead bodies.
"In some countries, people who have died of COVID-19 are being left unattended or taken back to their homes," Hisako Saitoh, a researcher at Chiba University in Japan who published the studies, told The New York Times, noting that the public should be aware of the new information.
Infectious virus remains in corpses up to 17 days after death, several studies have found, but are not believed to be a major factor in the pandemic.
Dr. Saitoh’s study showed dead bodies may carry significant amounts of infectious virus, and dead hamsters can give it to their living cage mates.
Dr. Saitoh and his team found that six of the 11 corpses they tested had high amounts of virus in their noses and lungs after they died. Researchers found the most virus in the lungs, as opposed to the upper respiratory tract, and said gases that build up after death can be released through any orifice, including the mouth, and may carry disease.
The results have not yet been published in a scientific journal.
Embalming prevented transmission, as did the Japanese practice of "angel care," which is plugging the mouth, nose, ears, and anus with cotton pads.
In the animal study, researchers found that hamsters that died of COVID within a few days of becoming infected transmitted it to other animals after they passed.
Still, the risk of a live patient spreading coronavirus is much greater than transmission from corpses, scientists maintain.
"Most people probably still need to worry a lot more about getting COVID from their living neighbors than their recently deceased ones," Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, told The New York Times.
But they "should be very cautious about physical contact with their loved ones' remains," she added.
A rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations may mean face masks will return.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last week that the recent spike of COVID cases could be high enough to warrant face masks in indoor settings to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to a weekly report from the agency, several communities are now rated “high” for COVID levels, including New York City and Los Angeles.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments.
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Dead Bodies May Carry COVID-19 for Days, Scientists Say – PEOPLE