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

3D illustration of coronavirus on a colored background.

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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. 

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CDC revises guidance, says COVID-19 can spread through virus lingering in air

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday said COVID-19 can spread through virus lingering in the air, sometimes for hours, acknowledging concerns widely voiced by public health experts about airborne transmission of the virus.

The CDC guidance comes weeks after the agency published – and then took down – a similar warning, sparking debate over how the virus spreads.

In Monday’s guidance, CDC said there was evidence that people with COVID-19 possibly infected others who were more than 6 feet away, within enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.

Under such circumstances, CDC said scientists believe the amount of infectious smaller droplet and particles, or aerosols, produced by the people with COVID-19 become concentrated enough to spread the virus.

The CDC has long warned of transmission through small droplets that shoot through the air and generally fall to the ground, which resulted in the six-feet social distancing rule. Aerosol droplets are much smaller still, and can remain suspended in the air, like smoke.

While CDC stresses close-contact transmission is more common than through air, a group of U.S. scientists warned in an unrelated open letter published in medical journal Science on Monday that aerosols lingering in the air could be a major source of COVID-19 transmission. (https://bit.ly/34pSPbH)

“The reality is airborne transmission is the main way that transmission happens at close range with prolonged contact,” the researchers said in a press call.

Viruses in aerosols can remain in the air for seconds to hours, travel more than two meters and accumulate in poorly ventilated indoor air, leading to superspreading events, the researchers said.

Since individuals with COVID-19 release thousands of virus-laden aerosols and far fewer droplets while breathing and talking, the scientists said the focus must be on protecting against airborne transmission.

They also said that public health officials should clearly differentiate between droplets ejected by coughing or sneezing and aerosols that can carry the virus to greater distances

Public health officials must highlight the importance of moving activities outdoors and improving indoor air, along with wearing mask and social distancing, the letter said.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

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