Story at glance

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic recommend maintaining a distance of at least 6feet from others.
  • An MIT researcher is arguing that through coughs, sneezes and other exhalations, the disease could spread from even farther away.
  • The World Health Organization has said they are monitoring new research as they learn more about this virus.

Six feet apart. Like cystic fibrosis patients have been for years, many of us are now monitoring the distance between us and others who are potentially carrying the new coronavirus, whether at home or in public. But what happens at 6 feet and 1 inch?

It's not like the virus will "hit a virtual wall and stop there and after that we are safe," Lydia Bourouiba, an associate professor at MIT, told USA Today

It's not. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for social distancing recommend that you stay at least 6 feet apart from others if you are contagious or concerned about being exposed to a contagious person. 

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The virus that causes COVID-19 most commonly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets and contact routes, according to a WHO scientific brief. These droplets are most contagious within 1 meter, or about 3 feet, or through contaminated surfaces. Airborne transmission can happen over greater distances, according to the brief, but the evidence that COVID-19 can spread in that manner is scant

Still, in a statement, the WHO said, “WHO carefully monitors emerging evidence about this critical topic and will update this scientific brief as more information becomes available. WHO welcomes modeling studies, which are helpful for planning purposes.”


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Bourouiba’s model is not specifically for COVID-19. But in her research at the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory, Bourouiba has found that exhalations cause gaseous clouds of droplets that can travel up to 27 feet.

“There’s an urgency in revising the guidelines currently being given by the WHO and the CDC on the needs for protective equipment, particularly for the frontline health care workers,” Bourouiba told USA Today. 

Surgical and N95 masks aren't tested for droplets traveling in this manner, she said, and contagious droplets can infect people through parts of the body not covered by the masks. 

Still, what Bourouiba’s research doesn’t show is how contagious COVID-19 would be when traveling more than 6 feet. Some scientists argue that if the new coronavirus could effectively spread from up to 27 feet away, more people would be sick. 

“It takes a certain number of viral particles, we call them ‘virions,’ or individual viruses, it takes a certain number of individual viruses to actually get a foothold inside the body and cause that infection to get going,” Dr. Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told USA Today. “Now, we don’t know exactly what that number is, but it’s probably more than a single virus. If you think about it, if this really traveled very efficiently by air, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

While the research is inconclusive at this point, staying at home as much as possible and away from anyone potentially carrying COVID-19 is still the most effective form of protection. Oh, and wash your hands. 


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Published on Apr 01, 2020