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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 updates coronavirus guidelines to include airborne transmission

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says COVID-19 can be spread through airborne transmission, according to updated guidance on the agency’s website. The update, which is now available on the agency’s “How It Spreads” page, says that people who are more than six feet away from each can still become infected from droplets that hang in the air, especially in enclosed spaces that have poor ventilation.

The revised guidance comes after the CDC updated its website to include airborne transmission last month, but then removed the information, saying it was still under review. Now, the CDC compares the respiratory spread possibility to different infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chickenpox, all viruses that spread through airborne transmission. 

“There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than six feet away,” reads the new guidance. “These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.”

So what does this mean for the average person? The CDC still asserts that close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 is the most common way to contract and spread the disease. However, the guidance on airborne transmission confirms that going maskless in poorly ventilated areas, such as restaurants and bars, where a person with COVID-19 has been could still result in infection. 

The news comes as cases in the U.S. continue to rise. Even the White House found COVID-19 hard to escape as President Trump announced he and first lady Melania Trump had both tested positive for the virus — just hours after aide Hope Hicks tested positive. Since then, more White House officials and others close to Mr. Trump and staff have also begun to test positive, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. With the U.S. still leading the world in virus cases, experts hope the updated guidelines might keep residents at home and away from crowded spaces as much as possible. 

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CDC says coronavirus can spread through airborne transmission

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Monday that coronavirus can spread through “airborne transmission” to people who are more than 6 feet away under certain conditions. 

The update on the agency’s website is an important change to the understanding of how the virus spreads, and one that many experts have been pointing to for months.  

The new guidance comes after the CDC sparked confusion last month by posting a document online about airborne transmission, only to take it down and say it was still being reviewed. 

Now, the agency has finally posted the guidance, which is careful to say that airborne transmission “sometimes” happens but that the virus “most commonly” spreads between people who are within 6 feet of each other. 

The danger of airborne transmission beyond 6 feet largely occurs indoors in poorly ventilated space, which is part of the reason why outdoor activities are considered safer. 

“CDC continues to believe, based on current science, that people are more likely to become infected the longer and closer they are to a person with COVID-19,” the agency said in a statement. “Today’s update acknowledges the existence of some published reports showing 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 continues to advise people to avoid spreading the virus by staying six feet away from others, wearing a mask, and washing their hands. To help prevent airborne transmission, which occurs through smaller particles that can linger in the air, the CDC also advises: “Avoid crowded indoor spaces and ensure indoor spaces are properly ventilated by bringing in outdoor air as much as possible. In general, being outdoors and in spaces with good ventilation reduces the risk of exposure to infectious respiratory droplets.”

Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor who has long warned of airborne transmission of coronavirus, wrote on Twitter that the document is “an accurate, sorely-needed update acknowledging airborne spread and importance of masks at all times around others and of ventilation. Hooray!”

–Updated at 2:22 p.m.

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