I recently took a drive-through COVID-19 test at the University of North Carolina. Everything was well organized and efficient: I was swabbed for 15 uncomfortable seconds and sent home with two pages of instructions on what to do if I were to test positive, and what precautions people living with or tending to COVID-19 patients should take. The instructions included many detailed sections devoted to preventing transmission via surfaces, and also went into great detail about laundry, disinfectants, and the exact proportions of bleach solutions I should use to wipe surfaces, and how.
My otherwise detailed instructions, however, included only a single sentence on “good ventilation”—a sentence with the potential to do some people more harm than good. I was advised to have “good air flow, such as from an air conditioner or an opened window, weather permitting.” But in certain cases, air-conditioning isn’t helpful. Jose-Luiz Jimenez, an air-quality professor at the University of Colorado, told me that some air conditioners can increase the chances of spreading infection in a household. Besides, “weather permitting” made it all seem insignificant, like an afterthought.
While waiting for my results, I checked the latest batch of announcements from companies trying to assure their customers that they were doing everything right. A major U.S. airline informed me how it was diligently sanitizing surfaces inside its planes and in terminals many times a day, without mentioning anything about the effectiveness of air circulation and filtering inside airplane cabins (pretty good, actually). A local business that operates in a somewhat cramped indoor space sent me an email about how it was “keeping clean and staying healthy,” illustrated by 10 bottles of hand sanitizer without a word on ventilation—whether it was opening windows, employing upgraded filters in its HVAC systems, or using portable HEPA filters. It seems baffling that despite mounting evidence of its importance, we are stuck practicing hygiene theater—constantly deep cleaning everything—while not noticing the air we breathe.
How is it that six months into a respiratory pandemic, we still have so little guidance about this all-important variable, the very air we breathe?
The coronavirus reproduces in our upper and lower respiratory tracts, and is emitted when we breathe, talk, sing, cough, or sneeze. Figuring out how a pathogen can travel, and how far, under what conditions, and infect others—transmission—is no small deal, because that information enables us to figure out how to effectively combat the virus. For COVID-19, perhaps the most important dispute centers specifically on what proportion of what size droplets are emitted from infected people, and how infectious those droplets are, and how they travel. That the debate over the virus’s modes of transmission is far from over is not a surprise. It’s a novel pathogen. The Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen told me that, historically, it took centuries to understand how pathogens such as the plague, smallpox, and yellow fever were transmitted and how they worked. Even with modern science, there are still debates about how influenza, a common annual foe, is transmitted.
In particular, the size of infectious particles really matters, because that determines how they travel—are they big enough to be quickly pulled down by gravity or are they small enough to float around? Since the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization has considered the primary mode of COVID-19 transmission to be respiratory droplets. These droplets are defined as particles bigger than 5 to 10 microns in diameter, and WHO guidelines say that once they are sprayed out of someone’s mouth, they travel ballistically and fall to the ground within close range of the infected person. For the WHO, that range is about three feet; for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also considers droplets to be the primary mode of transmission, it’s six feet. The dominance of a ballistic-droplet mode of transmission in this pandemic would mean that we should focus mostly on staying out of droplets’ range, especially to prevent them from falling on our unprotected mouth, nose, and eyes—hence the social-distancing guidelines. It also would mean that keeping that distance would be enough to stay safe from an infected person, on the other side of a room for example. (Of course, our hands can still potentially pick them up from surfaces and bring them to our face, hence the importance of hand-washing.)
There is a big dispute in the scientific community, however, about both the size and the behavior of these particles, and the resolution of that question would change many recommendations about staying safe. Many scientists believe that the virus is emitted from our mouths also in much smaller particles, which are infectious but also tiny enough that they can remain suspended in the air, float around, be pushed by air currents, and accumulate in enclosed spaces—because of their small size, they are not as subject to gravity’s downward pull. Don Milton, a medical doctor and an environmental-health professor at the University of Maryland, compares larger droplets “to the spray from a Windex dispenser” and the smaller, airborne particles (aerosols) “to the mist from an ultrasonic humidifier.” Clearly, it’s enough to merely step back—distance—to avoid the former, but distancing alone would not be enough to avoid breathing in the latter. [Continue reading…]