The “magic” number
This directive certainly seems easy enough. As long as we maintain a separation of at least six feet, we are sure not to…what exactly? It seems this rule was created when the notion of “droplets” was the prevailing thought. If the virus exited the carrier by way of the nose or mouth attached to a droplet, it had sufficient size and mass to resist staying airborne for an extended period of time.
Uhh-whoops-never mind that
But what has come to light is that this coronavirus does remain airborne for an extended period of time – approximately 2 hours by most accounts. This is likely because the virus does not require a droplet to exit the host – and rather than requiring someone to cough or sneeze or spit, this virus can become airborne when the person simply talks or breaths. When this became evident, sometime in mid-March of 2020, I don’t believe it got anywhere near the attention it deserved. This shift in understanding should have triggered a momentous change in how we protect ourselves against the virus. The six-foot rule, while better than nothing, was at best, insufficient and at worst, dangerously misleading given the new reality.
Think: Germ Cloud
If someone has a better term, please let me know, but a “germ cloud” seems to accurately describe what we are dealing with when we think about social settings and public exposure. A six-foot separation may be adequate if we remained still for the next few months, but since we are humans that move, the six feet becomes zero feet very quickly once we walk anywhere.
Now that we know this is an airborne virus that can be breathed into our respiratory tract, we need to understand more. One: We need to better understand the notion of “viral load” – the term given to the minimum amount of viral particles necessary to lead to an infection. I plan to further my knowledge on this topic soon, but my current under understanding is that we really don’t know the viral load of this coronavirus yet. Two: If we imagine the worst-case scenario, what precautions should we be taking. I know we have decided as a nation that frontline workers should have first and exclusive access to medical-grade respiratory masks (e.g. the N95 respiratory mask), and this is how it should be. For the time being, the rest of us should be wearing a barrier of some kind (e.g. a surgical mask, a home-made mask, a bandana) BUT given our knowledge of this virus, at some point, we should transition to a proper, fitted, respiratory mask ourselves. This is really the best true safeguard against inhaling viral particles. Acknowledging this now should make a difference in our production, supply-chain, and future messaging which should all begin now.