Story at a glance

  • Public health experts for months have advised people to stay at least 6 feet apart to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Experts warn that recommendation may not be enough under many indoor conditions where aerosols can remain airborne for hours and accumulate over time.
  • The experts say measures such as the universal wearing of masks and widespread testing are necessary to combat asymptomatic spread in aerosols and droplets.

Public health experts for months have advised people to stay at least 6 feet apart to help limit the spread of the coronavirus that has infected more than 1.7 million people in the United States and left more than 100,000 dead. 

But now some experts are warning that may not be enough. 


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In a perspective article published in the journal Science this week, specialists in chemistry and infectious diseases say new research is casting doubt on the 6-feet of distance guidance recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 


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“Increasing evidence for SARS-CoV-2 suggest the 6 ft WHO recommendation is likely not enough under many indoor conditions where aerosols can remain airborne for hours, accumulate over time, and follow air flows over distances further than 6 ft,” Chia Wang of National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, Kimberly Prather and Robert Schooley of the University of California, San Diego wrote. The authors of the article said aerosols from breathing and speaking can accumulate and remain infectious in indoor air for hours, and can be easily inhaled into the lungs. 

“Evidence suggests that [the novel coronavirus] is silently spreading in aerosols exhaled by highly contagious infected individuals with no symptoms,” they wrote.

The article notes the WHO’s recommendations for social distancing of 6 feet are based on studies of respiratory droplets carried out in the 1930s. When these studies were conducted, the technology didn’t exist for detecting submicron — sized below 1 μm, or one-millionth of a meter — aerosols. 

The experts say measures such as the universal wearing of masks and widespread testing are necessary to combat asymptomatic spread in aerosols and droplets.

“It is particularly important to wear masks in locations with conditions that can accumulate high concentrations of viruses, such as health care settings, airplanes, restaurants, and other crowded places with reduced ventilation,” they wrote. 

The coronavirus has infected more than 5.9 million people worldwide with more than 357,000 fatalities. The U.S. Wednesday topped more than 100,000 deaths.

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Published on May 28, 2020