Guidance from U.S. government agencies on how to minimize the risk of infection from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been widely publicized and taken to heart. This includes social distancing six feet apart, washing hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, wearing a cloth face cover, and avoiding contact from unwashed hands to your eyes, nose and mouth. Why have these measures been taken so seriously? The answer lies in the way COVID-19 is spread from person to person.
SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), humans can catch COVID-19 from other humans who have the coronavirus that causes this disease. Coronavirus itself is an overarching term for many of the viruses that cause sickness in humans and animals. In humans, the illness can be mild or severe. The coronavirus discovered at the end of 2019, known as SARS-CoV-2, is the one that causes the infectious disease named COVID-19. This is a serious disease that is potentially fatal for more vulnerable populations.
How COVID-19 spreads
The WHO continues to research how COVID-19 is disseminated. Given the knowledge base we have today, the disease is transmitted from one person to another via small droplets released from nasal and oral passages, which occurs when the infected person coughs or exhales. When these droplets alight on items and surfaces, and others touch these same items and surfaces, and then touch their own face, they are at high risk for catching the virus. Exposure can also occur when someone directly inhales droplets from an infected person; hence, the recommendation for social distancing and face masks.
Coronavirus in the air
Even the most diligent people who have demonstrated compliance with protective measures worry that simply breathing in the air where an infected person was present puts them at risk of exposure. Studies conducted so far indicate that COVID-19 is “mainly transmitted” through contact with respiratory droplets, not air. Some scientists believe that exhaled air does present a risk long after the infected person has left the room. If this is true, that is a greater concern because while droplets are likely to travel a short distance, exhaled air particles may span further and also remain for a longer duration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) have reported that “airborne transmission from person-to-person over long distances is unlikely.” At the same time, their strategy document written for health care professionals includes a reference to N95 respirators as the personal protective equipment most frequently used “to control exposures to infections transmitted via the airborne route,” with the caveat that this is dependent on proper fitting and usage. This remains a controversial topic.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends a list of ways to avoid coronavirus scams. This includes ignoring texts, emails or calls about checks from the government and being wary of emails claiming to be sent by the CDC or WHO. In collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FTC has sent warning letters to companies making claims about coronavirus without the backup of legally required evidence. For science-based information about coronavirus, the FTC suggests visiting the official websites of the CDC, FDA and WHO.