Story at a glance

  • Research shows that there is potential for COVID-19 to be spread through the air.
  • Scientists have been urging public health agencies to recognize that risk in order to encourage better prevention measures.
  • The CDC followed the World Health Organization in updating its guidance.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The CDC has since removed this language from their website. Read more

At the urging of scientists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated guidance on its website acknowledging that the coronavirus can be transmitted through the air. 

"It is possible that COVID-19 may spread through the droplets and airborne particles that are formed when a person who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes," reads the updated language. "There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet."


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That growing evidence includes a recent preprint, which has not been peer reviewed to test its validity, that found that in cases where COVID-19 presents as a respiratory illness, patients can produce aerosols containing the virus, raising the risk of airborne transmission. The change came at the same time the CDC reversed controversial guidelines about testing people who were exposed to coronavirus.

While the CDC website still says contact and inhalation of respiratory droplets or small particles with the virus is thought to be the main mode of transmission, current social distancing measures may not be effective against airborne transmission. In July, an open letter signed by more than 200 scientists appealed to the medical community, including the World Health Organization, to recognize the potential of airborne spread. 


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"We are concerned that the lack of recognition of the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the lack of clear recommendations on the control measures against the airborne virus will have significant consequences: people may think that they are fully protected by adhering to the current recommendations, but in fact, additional airborne interventions are needed for further reduction of infection risk," read the letter.

The letter acknowledged that the evidence of airborne transmission is still inconclusive, but says "it is similarly incomplete for the large droplet and fomite modes of transmission."

According to the CDC, sufficient and effective ventilation, supplemented by airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration and germicidal ultraviolet lights, could help protect against airborne transmission. But on an individual level, avoiding overcrowded areas and opening doors and windows when indoors can help protect against infection.


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Published on Sep 21, 2020