One of the biggest COVID-19 rules pertains to social distancing: Keep a 6-foot space between you and other people when you leave your home. But how accurate is it, really? We’ve uncovered some shocking info that could have you completely rethinking your COVID-19 safety zone.
We know the coronavirus spreads mainly through droplets expelled by infected people. Although the WHO is still on the fence about airborne transmission, it recommends people take appropriate precautions against this route of infection. And most places tell us that to do this best, we need to keep a 6-foot distance from other people. This seems sensible enough. As long as we’re not breathing on one another, we should be safe, right?
The 6-foot distance precaution is spot-on — in theory. If air were stagnant and viruses fell immediately to nearby surfaces, 6 feet would be plenty of room for the air between you and a vector to clear. And outside, where there’s an abundance of fresh air and air currents, as long as you’re not down-wind, that amount of distancing might be enough then too, says Science News. But the same rules may not apply indoors and this is a problem as we stag reopenings all over the country.
Findings recently published in the New England Medical Journal have determined that the virus responsible for COVID-19 can stay airborne for at least 3 hours in aerosol form. So, let’s say an infected person coughs in the supermarket you’re shopping at. You never come in contact with that person. Even though they’ve moved on by the time you reach that aisle, you eventually walk straight through the invisible cloud of droplets they expelled when you visit the area where they’d coughed. The sick person is long gone, but the potential for infection remains.
But viruses can also travel. A recent study examining viral movement in an enclosed environment showed airflow could play a major role in disease transmission. Just talking can send droplets flying forward at a rate of several meters per second (with that rate increasing at louder speaking volumes). A sneeze can skyrocket that figure into the tens of meters. So, in theory, you could be standing over 30 feet away from someone who sneezes and run a similar risk of breathing in infected droplets as someone who’s standing within that recommended 6-foot mark.
Let’s go back to our hypothetical supermarket aisle. Let’s say that sick person coughed on one end of the shelves while facing the other, effectively spraying droplets for over 30 feet. What do you think the odds are that you’ll be exposed if you walk down that aisle? Remember, some of those particles could remain airborne for hours. Is there really any reasonable amount of distance you can place between yourself and other people anywhere indoors and really be sure that you’re safe? Add airflow and human movement into the mix, and a surprisingly large space could potentially become a wall-to-wall danger zone within a short period of time. But we can fix that problem easily.
A virus’s ability to travel far distances leaves us with few other lines of defense. So the big question becomes: Will wearing a mask make any difference when you walk down that supermarket aisle? The answer could depend on the wearer, what type of mask it is and how well it fits.
It’s still hard to say how much protection a mask offers to the wearer — but the protection it offers the rest of us is incredible. If we all wear masks to protect each other, we can slow the spread and help save lives.
Let’s face it, there’s no simple solution to the social distancing problem. But since it's almost impossible to get enough distance, it seems, masks are one way we can help protect the people of our community. And until we know better ways, the best plan is probably to stay conservative in our interactions and to stay home as much as possible.
Copyright 2020, Wellness.com