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CDC revises coronavirus guidance to acknowledge that it spreads through airborne transmission

3D illustration of coronavirus on a colored background.

Leonello Calvetti | Stocktrek Images | Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its coronavirus guidance Monday, acknowledging that it can sometimes spread through airborne particles that can “linger in the air for minutes to hours” and among people who are more than 6 feet apart.

The CDC cited published reports that demonstrated “limited, uncommon circumstances where people with COVID-19 infected others who were more than 6 feet away or shortly after the COVID-19-positive person left an area.”

“In these instances, transmission occurred in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces that often involved activities that caused heavier breathing, like singing or exercise,” the CDC said in a statement. “Such environments and activities may contribute to the buildup of virus-carrying particles.”

The agency added that it is “much more common” for the virus to spread through larger respiratory droplets that are produced when somebody coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes. People are infected through such droplets mostly when they are in close contact with an infected person, the CDC said. 

“CDC’s recommendations remain the same based on existing science and after a thorough technical review of the guidance,” the agency said. “People can protect themselves from the virus that causes COVID-19 by staying at least 6 feet away from others, wearing a mask that covers their nose and mouth, washing their hands frequently, cleaning touched surfaces often and staying home when sick.”

The updated guidance comes after the agency mistakenly posted a revision last month that said the virus could spread through aerosols, small droplets that can linger in the air. The guidance was quickly removed from the CDC’s website because it was just “a draft version of proposed changes,” the agency said.

To what degree the coronavirus can spread through airborne particles has been a contentious debate among scientists for months. Some epidemiologists have charged that the World Health Organization as well as federal regulatory agencies in many countries have been slow to accept that the virus can spread by air. It’s a debate that could have implications for the importance of air filtration in reopening businesses and schools. 

Dr. Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said the new guidance is largely in line with what he says the science indicates about the coronavirus spreading through the air. He said in a phone interview after reviewing the new guidance that airborne transmission is something of a “side street” for spread. 

“Some cars do get through on the side street,” he said. “But the highways of transmission are close in, usually within enclosed spaces and for periods of time longer than 15 minutes with people standing within 3 to 6 feet of each other.”

Schaffner added that the new guidance doesn’t necessarily change how he thinks about reducing the risk of infection for most people. Wearing a mask, socially distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings remain the most important steps people can take, he said. 

But places of

New Jersey Veterans Homes Likely Failed to Acknowledge Covid-19 as Cause in Dozens of Deaths, Officials Say

A state-run nursing home for veterans in New Jersey failed to attribute nearly 40% of its likely Covid-19 deaths to the virus, according to the state’s own Department of Health.

The Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, in Edison, N.J., attributed 62 deaths to the new coronavirus on the website of the state’s veterans’ affairs agency. But a Department of Health spokeswoman, Nancy Kearney, said late Wednesday that an additional 39 people probably died from the virus at the facility during a wave of infections there.

Another state-run veterans home, in Paramus, N.J., also likely had more Covid-19 deaths than the total it attributed to the virus, Ms. Kearney said. The likely undercount at the two facilities, among the deadliest in the state for the virus, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The findings show how publicly reported nursing home mortality figures can fail to reflect the true toll the pandemic has taken on the facilities, which are home to some of the most virus-vulnerable people in the country.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Kryn Westhoven, in a statement released Wednesday, said his agency “mourns each and every veteran that passes away in our Memorial homes…. Much like other long-term care facilities across the state and country, Covid-19 created unprecedented circumstances and demands within our veterans memorial homes. During this time, all deaths were reported to the Department of Health.”

The New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, another state-run home for former members of the U.S. military, originally reported 81 Covid-19 deaths.



Photo:

timothy a. clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The two state-run nursing homes have faced a barrage of criticism from families of deceased residents. The Paramus facility, which initially reported more deaths, has in particular come under fire.

In the early days of the pandemic, testing wasn’t widely available to residents at many facilities. A large number of deaths at Menlo in April, the peak of that facility’s outbreak, were attributed to other causes, such as pneumonia, even as the death toll soared above usual levels.

The Paramus facility reported 81 deaths linked to Covid-19. The health department’s Ms. Kearney said an additional eight patients at that facility probably died from the virus.

The state counted as probable deaths those that weren’t clearly explained by another cause where patients had Covid-19 symptoms, or autopsies found signs of Covid-19, Ms. Kearney said in an email, as well as some other types of deaths.

Veterans agency records viewed by the Journal show nearly 100 people died at the Menlo facility in April alone. That’s about as many as the facility typically loses in a year, historical records show.

Mr. Westhoven also said in an earlier interview that the department only counted deaths when a death certificate expressly listed Covid-19 as the cause. That accounting missed some cases where residents tested positive but still didn’t have Covid-19 listed on their death certificates.

William Hefele, a Navy veteran and Menlo resident, was hospitalized in early April