Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been widely agreed upon by public health officials that the virus is primarily spread through person-to-person contact with respiratory droplets. But scientists around the world, who have been working tirelessly to understand more about this disease, are beginning to think that COVID-19 is also airborne. On Saturday, 239 scientists from 32 countries issued an open letter to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) asking the agency to revise its public health recommendations.
The letter, which will be published in an as-yet-unnamed scientific journal next week, outlines evidence scientists have compiled that suggests the novel coronavirus is not just spread through large respiratory droplets, but that it can also be spread in smaller aerosol particles, the New York Times reported. This difference is micro in scope, but fairly big in its implications. If COVID-19 is spread through small, aerosolized particles, as the scientists who wrote the report are suggesting, our approach to curbing the spread of the virus is going to need to change.
First, let’s clarify that in this context, the word “airborne” just implies a smaller virus particles that have potential to stay in the air longer, and be sneakier about getting into your system. It’s also important to note that many experts would agree that COVID-19 “can” become airborne — not that it, by nature, "is" or "is not."
Respiratory droplets are large, heavy particles that drop to the floor when someone coughs or sneezes, but aerosols (in this case, COVID-19 particles) are light, can travel further and faster, and will stay in the air longer than heavier particles. That means that infectious particles may be able to circulate much more widely than we have been assuming, the Times reported. When it comes to something that is airborne, face coverings might not be enough to protect is in social scenarios.
W.H.O.’s current recommendations, which determine, in part, how countries around the world respond to the novel coronavirus, are based on the assumption that COVID-19 is not airborne. But while the official recommendations would change if the aerosol theory is accepted, it’s no reason to panic. Having more information protects us all and will allow us to make more educated decisions in the interest of public health — like putting U.V. lights that kill the virus in public spaces and making sure there’s good airflow, the Times reported.
Does this mean we all need to live in fear of breathing any air that may have once been in contact with another human? No. “We have this notion that airborne transmission means droplets hanging in the air capable of infecting you many hours later, drifting down streets, through letter boxes and finding their way into homes everywhere,” Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Times. This, Hanage contended, is not the case.
It should be noted that whether coronavirus becomes airborne is still being debated. Some scientists do not find the data convincing, but if this contentious moment in COVID-19 science tells us anything, it’s that our knowledge about this virus is constantly evolving and that we should take precautions with the assumption that we simply do not — and cannot — have a perfect understanding of this disease at this time.
So how do we proceed? Keep social distancing and wear a mask, not just a face-covering. The chin hammock/handkerchief bandit look isn’t hot on anyone, contrary to the IGs of performative influencers.