As the number of COVID-19 cases rises in the US, the question of whether the novel coronavirus is airborne becomes increasingly urgent. Whether it’s still safe to go outside is just one of the many of the questions that arise.
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has maintained that the coronavirus is not airborne, scientists have uncovered troubling evidence that suggests we need to take even greater precaution in public spaces than we do already.
Is COVID-19 Airborne?
It’s widely understood that the coronavirus is transmissible through contact with infected individuals and surfaces. But a new study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found a simple cough or sneeze can send viral liquid droplets as far as 26 feet under the right conditions. Such a distance is considerably farther than the recommended six feet apart social distancing standard. However, droplet distance varies with respect to the individual’s physiology, the environment, the surrounding temperature and humidity.
The study also found that the expended particles, called “aerosols,” can hang suspended in the air for minutes at a time. Viral “droplets” on the other hand are denser and fall faster than they evaporate, so, by contrast, do not linger in the air at all.
For researchers, airborne diseases like measles and chickenpox are comprised of aerosols. According to The Atlantic, University of Maryland aerosol transmission expert Don Milton considers the WHO’s refusal to label the coronavirus as an airborne disease to be “really irresponsible.”
Although the JAMA study did not examine the coughs and sneeze of individuals infected with the novel coronavirus, study author Lydia Bourouiba told USA Today that continuing to use “arbitrary droplet size cutoffs may not accurately reflect what actually occurs with respiratory emissions,” which will ultimately lead to an increased international COVID-19 case count.
Whether or not COVID-19 will eventually be officially considered an “airborne” disease by the WHO, the findings of the JAMA study remain a cause for concern. Health care workers especially face a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 from their patients in light of this new information.
How to Protect Yourself
According to USA Today, maintaining ample air circulation indoors is one of the “best defenses” against disease contraction. Opening doors and windows help dissipate clouds of viral droplets.
Although surgical masks protect from larger droplets, they do not guard wearers as effectively as respirators against the sneaky, smaller airborne particles, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Still, the CDC recommends individuals wear face coverings in public, where it may be more difficult to maintain a six-foot distance from surrounding individuals. (Learn how to make your own mask at home here).
While the JAMA study findings signal that we should take greater precautions in public settings, it still remains relatively safe to go outside in areas without a high concentration of people. Linsey Marr, who studies airborne disease transmission at Virginia Tech, told The Atlantic, “The outside is great as long as you’re not in a crowded park.”
More COVID-19 Questions and Answers
- Questions about face masks and COVID-19.
- Wondering if it’s safe to bring groceries or take-out into your home?
- What are the proper cleaning methods for your home during the pandemic?
Parentology will continue to keep you updated on questions we all have during this time.