The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is finally acknowledging something that health experts have been saying for a while now: COVID-19 spreads through the air and can be inhaled by someone who is more than six feet away, writes STAT News.
The CDC said in a document published 7 May 2021 that it has “repeatedly documented” instances of the virus spreading through the air to people who were more than six feet away “under certain preventable circumstances”. This marks a change for the agency that previously said most infections took place through “close contact, not airborne transmission.”
“COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected,” the CDC now says on its website.
This comes after months of infectious disease experts warning that the CDC and World Health Organization were focusing too much on the risk of picking COVID-19 from surfaces and emphasising that “close contact” was needed for infection. That was despite increasing evidence that tiny virus particles could remain suspended in the air even after the infected person left a location. “CDC has now caught up to the latest scientific evidence, and they’ve gotten rid of some old problematic terms and thinking about how transmission occurs,” Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech, tells the New York Times.
Despite the change, some aerosol experts continue to say the CDC hasn’t gone far enough because it continues to say that transmission from far away is “uncommon,” which Marr said was “misleading and potentially harmful” because “if you’re in a poorly ventilated environment, virus is going to build up in the air, and everyone who’s in that room is going to be exposed.” The CDC’s wording “will lead people to continue to think that maintaining distance is sufficient to prevent transmission,” reads an open letter signed by seven experts, including Marr. “We know that transmission at distances beyond 6 feet occurs because of superspreader events, careful studies of smaller outbreaks, and the physics of aerosols. It can easily happen indoors in a poorly ventilated environment, when people are not wearing masks.”
The change in wording has important implications and illustrates how good ventilation in indoor spaces is key to prevent transmission of the virus and people can stop worrying about cleaning surfaces so much. But the basics remain the same. “Although how we understand transmission occurs has shifted, the ways to prevent infection with this virus have not,” notes the CDC. “All prevention measures that CDC recommends remain effective for these forms of transmission.”
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci details how things could have been different if the WHO and CDC had acknowledged this earlier in the pandemic:
“If the importance of aerosol transmission had been accepted early, we would have been told from the beginning that it was much safer outdoors, where these small particles disperse more easily, as long as you avoid close, prolonged contact with others. We would have tried to make sure indoor spaces were well ventilated, with air filtered as necessary. Instead of blanket rules on gatherings, we would have targeted conditions that can produce superspreading events: people in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, especially if engaged over time in activities that increase aerosol production, like shouting and singing. We would have started using masks more quickly, and we would have paid more attention to their fit, too. And we would have been less obsessed with cleaning surfaces.”
Full CDC statement:
This science brief has been updated to reflect current knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 transmission and reformatted to be more concise.
Modes of SARS-CoV-2 transmission are now categorized as inhalation of virus, deposition of virus on exposed mucous membranes, and touching mucous membranes with soiled hands contaminated with virus. Although how we understand transmission occurs has shifted, the ways to prevent infection with this virus have not. All prevention measures that CDC recommends remain effective for these forms of transmission.
SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by exposure to infectious respiratory fluids
The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory fluids carrying infectious virus. Exposure occurs in three principal ways: (1) inhalation of very fine respiratory droplets and aerosol particles, (2) deposition of respiratory droplets and particles on exposed mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eye by direct splashes and sprays, and (3) touching mucous membranes with hands that have been soiled either directly by virus-containing respiratory fluids or indirectly by touching surfaces with virus on them.
People release respiratory fluids during exhalation (e.g., quiet breathing, speaking, singing, exercise, coughing, sneezing) in the form of droplets across a spectrum of sizes.1-9 These droplets carry virus and transmit infection.
The largest droplets settle out of the air rapidly, within seconds to minutes. The smallest very fine droplets, and aerosol particles formed when these fine droplets rapidly dry, are small enough that they can remain suspended in the air for minutes to hours. Infectious exposures to respiratory fluids carrying SARS-CoV-2 occur in three principal ways (not mutually exclusive):
- Inhalation of air carrying very small fine droplets and aerosol particles that contain infectious virus. Risk of transmission is greatest within three to six feet of an infectious source where the concentration of these very fine droplets and particles is greatest.
- Deposition of virus carried in exhaled droplets and particles onto exposed mucous membranes (i.e., “splashes and sprays”, such as being coughed on). Risk of transmission is likewise greatest close to an infectious source where the concentration of these exhaled droplets and particles is greatest.
- Touching mucous membranes with hands soiled by exhaled respiratory fluids containing virus or from touching inanimate surfaces contaminated with virus.
The risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection varies according to the amount of virus to which a person is exposed
Once infectious droplets and particles are exhaled, they move outward from the source. The risk for infection decreases with increasing distance from the source and increasing time after exhalation. Two principal processes determine the amount of virus to which a person is exposed in the air or by touching a surface contaminated by virus:
- Decreasing concentration of virus in the air as larger and heavier respiratory droplets containing virus fall to the ground or other surfaces under the force of gravity and the very fine droplets and aerosol particles that remain in the airstream progressively mix with, and become diluted within, the growing volume and streams of air they encounter. This mixing is not necessarily uniform and can be influenced by thermal layering and initial jetting of exhalations.
- Progressive loss of viral viability and infectiousness over time influenced by environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation (e.g., sunlight).
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from inhalation of virus in the air farther than six feet from an infectious source can occur
With increasing distance from the source, the role of inhalation likewise increases. Although infections through inhalation at distances greater than six feet from an infectious source are less likely than at closer distances, the phenomenon has been repeatedly documented under certain preventable circumstances.10-21 These transmission events have involved the presence of an infectious person exhaling virus indoors for an extended time (more than 15 minutes and in some cases hours) leading to virus concentrations in the air space sufficient to transmit infections to people more than 6 feet away, and in some cases to people who have passed through that space soon after the infectious person left. Per published reports, factors that increase the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection under these circumstances include:
Enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation or air handling within which the concentration of exhaled respiratory fluids, especially very fine droplets and aerosol particles, can build-up in the air space.
Increased exhalation of respiratory fluids if the infectious person is engaged in physical exertion or raises their voice (e.g., exercising, shouting, singing).
Prolonged exposure to these conditions, typically more than 15 minutes.
Prevention of COVID-19 transmission
The infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2 needed to transmit infection has not been established. Current evidence strongly suggests transmission from contaminated surfaces does not contribute substantially to new infections. Although animal studies22-24 and epidemiologic investigations25 (in addition to those described above) indicate that inhalation of virus can cause infection, the relative contributions of inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on mucous membranes remain unquantified and will be difficult to establish. Despite these knowledge gaps, the available evidence continues to demonstrate that existing recommendations to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission remain effective. These include physical distancing, community use of well-fitting masks (e.g., barrier face coverings, procedure/surgical masks), adequate ventilation, and avoidance of crowded indoor spaces. These methods will reduce transmission both from inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on exposed mucous membranes. Transmission through soiled hands and surfaces can be prevented by practicing good hand hygiene and by environmental cleaning.