Without masks and a vaccine, we could reach Herd Immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We break down the science of it.
Medical researchers are constantly learning new information about the coronavirus, leading to improved treatments and practices. At the same time, many questions remain unanswered, such as whether those who get infected develop immunity and, if so, for how long.
More concerning for public health experts is the abundance of misinformation about COVID-19, fueled in part by what they say are mixed messages from the federal government. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recognized airborne transmission of the virus, after briefly acknowledging in September what the scientific community had been arguing for months, then taking down the guidance from its website days later.
Misconceptions about the potential severity of a disease that often doesn’t manifest any symptoms and the belief that it only threatens old, infirm folks are among the notions medical professionals want to dispel.
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USA TODAY spoke to some of them seeking to clarify some common doubts:
Is 6 feet really a safe distance?
That’s more a rule of thumb than a hard-and-fast instruction. Much the determination depends on the level of ventilation and whether people are wearing masks. Six feet apart from others is generally safe outside, but not always inside.
“Under certain conditions, particularly indoors and in areas with poor airflow around un-masked people infected with COVID-19, the virus can be transmitted via an airborne route via so-called aerosols (very fine particles suspended in air),’’ said Dr. Benjamin Singer, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “These particles can hang in the air and transmit over distances greater than six feet.’’
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What type of face masks should the general public use?
Surgical masks, which are inexpensive and readily available, and cloth masks made out of thick cotton are effective at limiting the virus’ spread. They provide some protection for the wearers but more for those around them. Neck gaiters and masks made of stretchy fabric are not deemed as effective at preventing spread of infectious droplets.
Is indoor dining safe?
Experts still consider it risky, despite measures such as limiting the number of diners and keeping them distanced.
“One of the biggest risks with indoor dining is everyone has their masks off, and if the ventilation isn’t great, you can get sick,’’ said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of Global Health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, and an emergency room physician, adding that he would eat at restaurant outdoors but not indoors.
Does sanitizing door handles and high-touch surfaces make a difference?
Not much. Cioe-Peña calls it “mostly theater,’’ pointing out there are limited circumstances under which people can get infected from those surfaces.
Said Singer: “Available data do not point toward surfaces as major transmitters of infection, although routine sanitation of high-touch surfaces still makes common sense.’’
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Can I get together safely with family and friends?
Yes, but preferably outdoors, in small groups and taking precautions. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco who specializes in infectious diseases, said there should be plenty of sanitizer available in those gatherings and members of each household should stick together and maintain distance from the other groups.
“It’s fine to have a barbecue if you do it in a modest way and think about these risk aspects of keeping the pods apart from each other,’’ he said.
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Is it safe to ride elevators?
For the most part, as long as they’re not crowded and everyone is wearing masks. Because they’re confined spaces with little air flow, it’s best not to spend a lot of time in them. Getting stuck in an elevator for a long stretch could be risky.
What measures should I take when going to the grocery store?
“Masks and physical distancing are important,’’ Singer said, “as is following traffic patterns in the store.’’
Should I use mass transit, and under what conditions?
“Under almost no conditions would I use mass transit, unless it was a trolley in San Francisco outdoors and standing outside,’’ Cioe-Peña said. “I would treat a subway car as a hot zone and would want to wear full PPE (personal protective equipment). I think it’s really high risk, because you have prolonged transit time and bad air circulation.’’
However, he endorsed riding in cars – including ride-hailing services like Uber – with all windows open and everyone wearing masks.
Should I send my kids back to school?
“Local guidelines and local infection patterns/outbreaks are key in answering that question,’’ Singer said. “Regardless, masks and physical distancing, outdoors when possible, are important measures to limit viral spread among children.’’
Cioe-Peña noted that even though young people typically don’t develop severe COVID symptoms, there’s increasing data that shows children 9 and older and college-age adults can be disease vectors. He said his kids are attending school outdoors and that when it gets cold later in the year, “they’re either going to school remotely or be doing math problems in the snow.’’
Can I go to the gym?
That’s a tough call, made easier if the gym’s outdoors. Many of the indoor ones have made efforts to improve their ventilation and require masks and physical distancing, so those are factors in the decision. If having others in your vicinity huffing and puffing is a source of concern, outdoor exercise may be a better option.
Should I still avoid bars?
Yes, and even outdoors they’re not a great idea because bar patrons tend to remove their masks and get careless about distancing.
“The tricky thing with bars is alcohol is the root of all mistakes, right?’’ Cioe-Peña said. “You’re less likely to respect the social distancing with bars. I’m not excited about them. Their social function is antithetical to the containment of the coronavirus. That’s the big issue.’’
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