July 4 BBQ tips: Virologist says pack the hand sanitizer, avoid the potato salad

For many Americans this year, Fourth of July celebrations will mark the country’s effective return to normalcy — or something like it — after 16 months of coronavirus pandemic disruption and more than 600,000 lives lost. But experts say that though there is much to celebrate, there are some safety measures that those who have planned gatherings should consider.

Although the country is expected to fall just short of President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of U.S. adults with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, planned celebrations by millions of Americans are meant to serve as a mark of the nation’s recovery.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen dramatically, thanks to an expansive vaccination campaign. Air travel counts continue to soar, while schools, restaurants and other businesses are rapidly reopening.

Barbecues are a known breeding ground for germs

Considering the progress, infectious disease experts say July 4 celebrations are generally OK, with a few CDC guideline caveats. But officials have urged Americans to remember that Independence Day does not mean the end of the pandemic.

Despite data indicating that the pandemic is improving in the U.S. and other parts of the world, the global death toll this year from the novel coronavirus has already eclipsed 2020’s.

RELATED: COVID-19’s global death toll this year has already surpassed 2020’s count

The so-called COVID-19 delta variant, which was first detected in India, now represents more than 20% of coronavirus infections in the U.S. in the last two weeks, or double what it was when the CDC last reported on the variant’s prevalence.

Which means Americans will still have be remain cautious when attending any July 4 cookouts. 

Dr. Charles Gerba, an environmental virologist and microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, has been studying how diseases transmit throughout the environment for years.

While many Americans have been keeping their hands clean to avoid transferring bacteria during the coronavirus pandemic, Gerba warns that July 4 barbecues can act as a breeding ground for germs — viruses included. 

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Gerba says holidays that involve potlucks and large gatherings with food see the greatest uptick in food poisoning, including norovirus — a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea.

"When you pack up everything make sure you put certain items like potato salad on ice, bring a hand sanitizer, bring a cloth to cover the table, because every picnic table is a bird’s bathroom and they do have bacteria that can make you ill and of course make sure your food is cooked adequately," Gerba said.

For peace of mind, get vaccinated, experts recommend

In an interview with FOX TV Stations on April 6, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases expressed confidence in the current effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines but expressed concerns over the return of some public events, urging Americans not to declare premature victory over the pandemic. 

In response to a question on whether he would go to a packed baseball game this summer if he knew everyone had been vaccinated, Fauci said, "You gave a beautiful hypothetical. I would hope that we would have that situation where everyone agrees to get vaccinated, which I really hope they do, because the more people get vaccinated, the greater proportion of people that get vaccinated, the more easy it will be to get to the point where you could sit at an unlimited capacity Nats game, have a hotdog and a beer and not worry about anything."

Fauci said if everyone was vaccinated, he would feel confident enough in the efficacy of the vaccine that he would attend a packed game. "It doesn’t have to be everybody. If it was 95 percent of the people, I’d still feel comfortable," Fauci said.

And while the world is currently still in an ongoing pandemic, Gerba feels confident enough in the COVID-19 vaccines that so long as a family gathers and everyone is vaccinated and practices other health precautions, most people should be fine.

With the current vaccination rates, Gerba says food poisoning is a greater concern for July 4 barbecues than COVID-19 — that is, if those in attendance at a local gathering are actually vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. 

Host outside, skip the potato salad

Gerba urges having gatherings outside and social distance and wear masks if they’re not vaccinated against the disease. 

"Inside, while the risks are greater there because the virus can survive better in indoor environments, air circulation may be limited, so the risks are greater inside. So that’s why taking precautions of hand sanitizer and wearing masks may be relevant if people aren’t vaccinated," Gerba said.

Besides keeping the gathering outdoors, he urges Americans to exercise caution with the potato salad. 

"Usually you get a peak in food born outbreaks after the Fourth of July. The reason is, potato salad seems to be the number one, because people don’t keep it cool enough so bacteria grows in it and you get a good case of diarrhea," Gerba said.

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Gerba explained that ingredients found in cold foods popular at picnics like macaroni salad or potato salad contain the perfect acidity to allow bacteria to grow and spread.

"If you let it [potato salad] sit out an hour without being in an ice chest, don’t eat it," Gerba said. 

Gerba also advised barbecue-goers to try to serve foods using tongs and avoid touching them with hands as much as possible.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is typically spread from close contact with another person, usually through respiratory droplets that either enter the mouth, nose or are inhaled by a person’s lungs. There is also evidence that the virus is airborne, meaning that it can potentially be contracted through smaller aerosolized droplets that linger in the air when an infected person talks or breathes.

The CDC advises people to frequently clean and disinfect touched surfaces "daily." 

Wash hands for 20 seconds — really

Gerba explains that the medical community "doesn’t know the true percentage," of being infected with a disease like COVID-19 from touching a surface infected with the disease and from touching your face, eyes and nose where the virus can enter your body. 

Gerba says as long as everyone is actively sanitizing or washing their hands before they touch their food, they should be safe.

The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, but Gerba says his research has found that most people only wash for about 11 seconds.

"Only one-fifth of the people at least in the studies we’ve done have adequately washed their hands," Gerba said.

Celebrate the progress, but don’t forget the pandemic — yet

Gerba said he has seen a dramatic rise in hygiene habits and a decline in foodborne illnesses thanks to precautions people have been taking to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These are precautions that many medical experts are urging Americans to still follow despite the noted accomplishments in curbing the pandemic over the past year.

Medical officials have stressed that the vaccination effort must continue in order to stem the pandemic globally and stop the rise of more troublesome variants of the coronavirus. 

Studies have shown that the vaccines currently available in the U.S. work against variants, including the delta variant, and current CDC guidelines broadly indicate those who are fully vaccinated don’t need to wear masks.

But in areas with low vaccination rates, both in the U.S. and abroad, the delta variant poses a threat. Many countries still have low vaccination rates where supply is less plentiful.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press and Kelly Hayes contributed.