The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says COVID-19 can be airborne in some circumstances. In a new update, the CDC says the coronavirus is most likely to spread through droplets in the air, including both larger and smaller aerosolized respiratory droplets containing the virus.
Previously, the CDC did state that droplet transmission was the main mode of spread for COVID-19. But it focused on larger respiratory droplets, which are expelled when someone with the infection talks, yells, sneezes, or coughs. Another person can then inhale those larger droplets and get sick. Or the droplets could land in someone’s mouth, nose, or eyes, infecting them that way. But large respiratory droplets generally fall to the ground quickly—unlike aerosolized particles.
Then in September, the CDC updated its guidelines to include airborne transmission only to revert back to the previous version saying that the new information had been “posted in error,” CNN reported.
Now, the big update is that this version of the CDC’s information acknowledges the potential for COVID-19 airborne transmission. This type of transmission occurs when respiratory droplets containing the virus are small and light enough to linger in the air for a little while or even reach people farther than six feet away, SELF explained previously. But, as the CDC mentions, this type of transmission is still rare, and it mostly occurs indoors where normal (larger) droplet transmission is also most likely to happen.
“There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising,” the CDC says. “Under these circumstances, scientists believe that the amount of infectious smaller [droplets] and particles produced by the people with COVID-19 became concentrated enough to spread the virus to other people. The people who were infected were in the same space during the same time or shortly after the person with COVID-19 had left.”
With the potential for COVID-19 to be airborne, it’s extremely important to ensure there’s proper ventilation in indoor spaces where the virus is more likely to spread in this way. It’s also crucial to stick with outdoor activities (where ventilation isn’t as much of a concern) rather than indoor activities as much as possible. That’s especially true for activities that involve heavy breathing, like singing or working out, which may propel those droplets even farther.
Wearing a mask is another essential public health strategy that we know can reduce the spread of COVID-19 through respiratory droplets. But airborne particles are smaller and may not be as easy to block with the types of cloth masks that most of us have at home. That’s why it’s so important for people like those who have to spend more time indoors with others they don’t live with and those who work in the medical field to wear proper N95 masks or surgical masks that are better equipped to prevent this type of viral transmission. For most of us, though, cloth masks are just fine—as long as they have more than one layer of protection and fit snugly against the face.
The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (whether through larger or smaller droplets) is to avoid prolonged contact with other people who may have the virus—especially in small, enclosed indoor spaces. Instead, be sure to stay socially distanced (remember that six feet is the minimum!), wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and stick with outdoor activities with as few people as you can stand.
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