Ever wondered what's behind the social distancing standard of six feet between yourself and another person? It goes back to studies conducted in the 1940s about how far respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes travel before they drop to the ground. But the novel coronavirus is unique in many ways, and one of them is how it spreads from person to person. At the beginning of the pandemic, scientists went by the six-feet standard. But there's growing evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted via aerosols—smaller droplets that don't drop and instead float in the air for a time—leading to a CDC update to that effect this week. So what does it mean for you, right now? Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, answered that in a recent Q&A with Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green.
"Recent data is making it much, much clearer that there is a degree of aerosol spread," said Fauci. "So let me explain exactly what aerosol spread is, so people understand, because I think there's a lot of misperception about that." Read on, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
How COVID spreads: A changing perspective
He explained that respiratory droplets do spread COVID-19, but the illness is frequently spread by people who don't show signs of being ill. "Most people who are spreading it are speaking the way I'm speaking," said Fauci. "There are droplets that come out with speaking, singing, and certainly with coughing and sneezing."
Fauci explained that if droplets are a certain size, they drop to the ground within six feet, which led to the six-feet social distancing rule. But smaller droplets seem able to travel farther and hang in the air longer. "When you say 'aerosol,' that means these respiratory particles don't immediately go to the ground," he said. "They have the capability of floating around anywhere from many seconds to minutes or maybe even longer, which means that being just six feet away isn't necessarily the total protection."
How to keep yourself safe
"You've got to wear a mask," said Fauci. "And you've got to remember that if you're indoors, it is much more difficult to escape infection when there's aerosol spread, because it continues to recirculate. If I'm in a room and there's no really good circulation in and out, you can have that droplet go around for several minutes. So just being six feet apart is not going to help you."
He summed it up: "One, wear a mask. Number two: outdoors is always better than indoors. And if you're going to be indoors, keep the windows open."
Besides wearing a face mask, Fauci strongly recommends you avoid crowds, social distance, only run essential errands, wash your hands frequently, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.