It looks like cloth masks and 6-feet social distancing might not be enough for our fight against COVID-19.
In mid-April 2021, The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published a report saying that there is consistent, strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads by airborne transmission. Six experts from the UK, US and Canada gave ten scientific reasons in support of airborne transmission of COVID-19. Some of the ones that we want to mention here.
The report said that long-range transmission of COVID-19 between people in adjacent rooms but never in each other’s presence has been documented in quarantine hotels. The report also said that the transmission of the pathogen is higher indoors compared to outdoors.
The authors also said that viable SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in the air. During laboratory experiments, the pathogen stayed infectious in the air for up to three hours. The report also said that the virus has been identified in air filters and building ducts in hospitals with COVID-19 patients.
Apart from The Lancet, WHO has said, “The virus can also spread in poorly ventilated and/or crowded indoor settings, where people tend to spend longer periods of time. This is because aerosols remain suspended in the air or travel farther than 1 metre (long-range).”
So, COVID-19 is said to be airborne now but wouldn’t the face masks and social distancing prevent us from getting infected? They might not. According to a new study by MIT, which was published in PNAS, a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal, the widely used rule of staying 6 feet away from others indoors is not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 in indoor spaces. One of the study authors said that, in some cases, the exposure level might be the same at 6 feet as at 60 feet.
The researchers also said that in an environment in which the air is moving around the room and people are talking, eating, singing, and sneezing, the drops can be suspended in the airflow and mixed throughout the room longer. MIT professor Martin Z. Bazant told CNBC that 20 people gathered inside for one minute is probably fine but not over the course of several hours. Bazant added that the distancing isn’t helping you that much and its also giving you a false sense of security.
So, What Now?
We shouldn’t be careless thinking that just because we are 6 feet away doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be infected. Instead, we should follow the general advice that is being given right now, which is to avoid enclosed spaces such as restaurants and to be in a place that has proper ventilation. The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal, said that the installation of air filtering units such as those with high efficiency particulate air filters or specialised ventilation systems could also help.
Catherine Noakes, a professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, said that cloth masks — unlike filtering masks like the N95 — may provide only limited protection against breathing in aerosols if they are already suspended in the air. Julia Tang, a consultant virologist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, has said that tighter fitting masks or wearing two masks might reduce the emission of aerosols from a source and the inhalation by a recipient wearer.
We agree that the way in which the infection spreads is changing. However, this is not the time to panic but to be highly cautious. It is always advisable to avoid going out or to stay in enclosed spaces for a longer period of time. It is also important to wear two face masks.
But the most important thing is that the government should create awareness about the changing situation and advise new safety measures to people. The reports have clearly shown that it is time that we become even more careful about our day-to-day activities. And the government should also make it their duty to inform the public about the ways in which the virus is changing and how the people can protect themselves during these difficult times.