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The coronavirus is airborne. Here's what that means.
Keep wearing a mask, keeping a distance, avoiding crowds and indoors, and let the fresh air flow.
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that disappoints accountants everywhere.
I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect (which is available for preorder now, what!!!!). I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them.
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Thank you for bearing with me while I took a little break. I think I’m back on track, work-wise, but sometimes everything gets a little overwhelming.
It’s not just grief for my brother. The past few weeks have been incredibly hard as cases around the country skyrocketed, and I realized the extent to which this virus will be staying with us for the foreseeable future — at least, for those of us in the United States. Lucky readers living in Europe have all but forgotten what lockdown was like; life has, I’ve heard, returned mostly to normal.
Meanwhile, I’m planning on a school year with no school and a winter with no friends for my son. It all gets to be too much, sometimes. And that’s okay; that’s the normal reaction to abnormal times. We are bearing witness to a needless, senseless tragedy every single day. Reacting to it, mourning it, is the most human response.
Maybe I’ll talk more about that in a future update. In the meantime, I want to get into the nitty-gritty of how this virus is transmitted.
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The coronavirus hangs in an infectious cloud
A few weeks ago, I started drafting an update to debunk the idea that this coronavirus floats in the air. The WHO, for instance, specifically said the virus was not airborne, and I believed them. But as I started reading studies and reports, I realized that I had it completely wrong.
Scientists were finding traces of the virus all over patients’ rooms — including in the air and in vents across the room, where no droplets could have gone. And they were finding these aerosols even in the rooms of asymptomatic patients — people who weren’t coughing or sneezing.
Other researchers were finding that singing, talking, laughing, and even breathing releases hundreds or even thousands of droplets, some of which are tiny enough to hang in the air for several minutes.
I realized I needed to speak with some experts. Several of them told me that airborne transmission was not only possible, but it made an awful lot of sense, given what we know about the virus’s spread.
Photo: Eirik Luka
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What we can do about that
I ended up writing about all of this for The New Republic. In my humble, not at all biased opinion, the whole piece is worth reading. But here’s the TL;DR.
Even if you’re not coughing, you are releasing extremely tiny virus particles pretty much all of the time if you have an active infection.
That means asymptomatic people can definitely spread the virus. (If you still have symptoms, but tests show the virus is no longer active in your body, you are likely not contagious.)
The particles are more likely to stay aloft in the air if there’s bad air circulation. That’s especially true indoors, and especially true if the air isn’t being filtered regularly with a top-notch HEPA filter.
Restaurants are particularly risky for these reasons — lots of people in and out, with potentially dubious air filters that don’t catch viral particles, and no one is wearing a mask? Count me out. In fact, any place with close crowds of people clustered indoors is gonna get crossed off my list immediately — concerts, rallies, basketball games — a whole lotta nope.
The great outdoors is your friend; the air circulation outside, if you hadn’t noticed, is pretty great. Going outside is not foolproof; if you are standing or sitting three feet or so from someone who has the virus for more than, say, 15 minutes, you are probably going to get sick, no matter if you’re inside or out.
That means keeping a distance — six or even ten feet — is still one of the very best things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting sick.
Luckily, though, it seems like simply walking through an infectious cloud isn’t enough exposure for most people to get sick. So you can stop scowling at the jogger with asthma who can’t wear a mask.
That being said: if you can, whenever you can, wear a mask. You brilliant loyal readers knew this a long time ago! Cloth masks are great at keeping others from breathing in your exhalations (ew), and medical masks go the extra step of also protecting you a bit more from getting the virus.
But no masks are perfect, even when you wear them like a pro. So even when you’re masked up, keep that distance and keep the air as fresh as possible. Washing your hands ain’t a bad idea, although increasingly my rule is this:
People, not things, give you the virus.
Sometimes that’s comforting, sometimes… less so. And there are definitely exceptions to it, so please don’t go around licking hospital floors.
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Does this mean we’re all doomed?
After all of my research and conversations with experts, it boiled down to this: Yes, our knowledge of the virus is changing as we learn more about it. But honestly, we already know how to keep ourselves safe: keep a distance, wear a mask, avoid crowds and indoor places, and keep that fresh air flowing. (Okay, that last one is new. And you heard it here, hot off the presses! Can you believe this newsletter is free? Neither can my accountant.)
In the absence of federal and state-level leadership, there are still many things you can do to keep yourself safe. That’s the good news.
But I also want to acknowledge, just for a moment, the pain that lack of leadership has brought us. It’s okay to grieve over and rage against the ways leaders and officials have not protected us. It’s not right.
As we move further into this pandemic, we’ll likely have to change our own risk calculations and potentially put ourselves and loved ones at even greater risk because we don’t have other good choices. That really fucking sucks, and I’m sorry.
Change can come — and when it does, it makes a difference, as long as we change, too.
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Stay as safe as you can out there, friends. As always, please leave a comment or email me with questions and feedback at email@example.com.
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