Respiratory Droplets, Not Surfaces, Are The Main Way COVID-19 Is Spread

Photo: Miquel Llop/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
In new guidelines, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention have now stated that we don't have to be so worried about catching coronavirus from surfaces. But we should still keep our distance from people, since the respiratory droplets released when they cough, sneeze, or talk are thought to be the primary way COVID-19 is spread.
This is a pretty major update. It also provides a modicum of peace of mind to everyone concerned about contracting the virus — though, the CDC does note that the "virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading very easily and sustainably between people" and that "we are still learning about how the virus spreads." (The Public Health Agency of Canada notes "the virus may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days depending on different conditions." Conditions include: temperature, the type of surface, and the humidity.) In other words, it's crucial to wear face masks and practice social distancing, and experts aren't completely ruling out other modes of transmission.
So, what exactly are respiratory air droplets? Basically, the little beads of water, mucus, and saliva that are produced when someone coughs, sneezes, or even talks — and if that person has been infected with the virus, then those droplets contain SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, too. These droplets can linger in the air for anywhere from a fraction of a second to minutes — and they can travel up to 26 feet, according to a Journal of The American Medical Association article published on March 26.
Previously, the concern was that if an infected person coughed into their hand, then touched a surface, then you touched that surface, then touched your face, you could come down with COVID-19. That's certainly still possible — just not the main way the virus is spreading. "Respiratory viruses don’t infect through your skin, they infect through your mucous membranes: the eyes, nose, and mouth," Julie Vaishampayan, MD, chairwoman of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in an interview in The New York Times.
So being careful about what you're touching, keeping your hands away from your face, and washing them frequently is still a good idea and can go a long way in keeping you safe from infected droplets. But, surfaces aren't as dangerous as we previously might have thought, according to the CDC. And it's especially important to keep your distance from other people, particularly if they appear sick — though, of course, it's possible to be infected without showing symptoms. "For the spring and summer months, strict adherence to the public health basics of physical distancing, handwashing and cough etiquette must continue as the bare minimum," Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam said in a news conference this week.
As always, we are still learning about COVID-19, how it spreads, and the best ways to stay safe.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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