If you can believe it, scientists are still learning about how the deadly coronavirus spreads, even as the U.S. nears 3 million confirmed cases.
We know that the main way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets. When an infected individual breathes, coughs, sneezes, or speaks, these droplets are released into the air. If another person is nearby, they could ingest these droplets and get infected with COVID-19. That’s why it’s important to wear face coverings and remain at least six feet apart. When people are outside, the droplets tend to evaporate much more quickly than they would inside.
But new evidence suggests that there’s another way the virus spreads from person to person. Scientists now believe small particles containing the virus may be able to aerosolize and linger in the air for up to three hours. That means that even if two people are staying far apart, they could pass the virus onto one another if they are occupying the same space for long periods of time.
What is Aerosolized Spread?
This new idea of “aerosolized spread” is catching a lot of people off guard. We’ve been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic for months, so this information is seen as a bit of curve ball as states and nations try to prevent as many new infections as possible.
In terms of safety, individuals may need to wear face masks at all times when occupying indoor spaces with other people for long periods of time – even if they are standing six feet apart. If you think of a café or restaurant, workers are always moving back and forth. They could easily ingest these aerosolized particles if they are not wearing face masks.
This also highlights the need for constant ventilation. The best way to prevent particles lingering in the air is to keep the air moving. Opening windows, turning on fans, and keeping workers and individuals in designated areas will help reduce infection via aerosolized spread.
However, it also raises concerns over the winter. As the temperature drops and people gravitate towards the indoors, bars, gyms, and restaurants could turn into even bigger hotspots for the virus. HVAC systems may also recirculate the same air, which could also lead to infection.
With aerosolized spread, the particles containing the virus are much smaller than the ones released through respiratory droplets. They are often harder to detect and can travel farther than traditional droplets. Scientists believe they can pose a risk to those standing further than six feet away.
Healthcare Leaders Pen Open Letter to CDC, WHO
Airborne transmission will undoubtedly make the virus harder to contain, but it’s not clear how many infections it’s causing. However, healthcare providers are speaking up and taking action.
Over the weekend, 239 of the country’s top scientists and providers penned an open letter to the CDC and World Health Organization asking them to revisit their coronavirus information to include aerosolized spread. However, these organizations have been slow to respond thus far.
As Donald Milton, one of the authors of the letter and a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, said, “The airborne transmission word seems to be loaded.”
He believes these organizations are hesitant to talk about this issue as it could make a lot of people afraid and further cripple the U.S. economy. He thinks the CDC and WHO are also worried that this information could do more harm than good. If more people learn that the virus is airborne, they might stop washing their hands or disinfecting surfaces, which is the wrong approach.
In the letter, Milton and his colleagues argue:
“Most public health organizations, including the World Health Organization, do not recognize airborne transmission except for aerosol-generating procedures performed in healthcare settings. Handwashing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people.”
The letter goes on to include tips for preventing aerosolized spread:
- Provide sufficient and effective ventilation (supply clean air, minimize recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplace environments, schools, hospitals, and age-care homes.
- Supplement general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high-efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights (These would be placed high up in the ceiling to avoid damage to people’s eyes and skin).
- Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings.
- As for healthcare providers and those who must occupy enclosed spaces, they suggest wearing N95 face coverings.
We shouldn’t react to new information about the virus with fear. There’s no reason to panic. The bottom line is that these scientists want us to focus more on ventilation, opening windows, and airing out spaces to reduce the chances of aerosolized spread.
Keep this information in mind as you try to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.