A team of researchers at the University of Florida found that aerosols released by COVID-19 patients in hospital rooms remain viable and infectious. It’s the first time scientists have demonstrated that the floating respiratory droplets expelled by patients contain an infectious, live virus.
“This is what people have been clamoring for,” said Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Linsey Marr, a noted expert on aerosols and viruses. “It’s unambiguous evidence that there is infectious virus in aerosols.” According to The New York Times, Marr tweeted last week: “If this isn’t a smoking gun, then I don’t know what is.”
The research team managed to collect live viruses from air samples in hospital rooms at the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital. They harvested the aerosols at distances of 7 and 16 feet, according to the Times, farther than the 6 feet recommended for safe distancing by many health agencies.
The scientists used exacting and innovative procedures to preserve the aerosols and were able to show that the virus could infect cells in lab dish. They also found that the genetic sequencing of the captured virus was the same as the one found in the nasal swab of the infected patient in the hospital room.
While the researchers found only 74 virus particles per liter of air, Dr. John Lednicky, the team’s leading virologist, said that the hospital rooms had frequent air changes and ultraviolet irradiation to help cleanse the air. He said that indoor spaces without good ventilation may harbor more particles.
Experts noted that the distances where the virus was found were far greater than the 6 feet recommended for safe physical distancing. Australian chemist Dr. Robyn Schofield told the Times: “We know that indoors, distance rules don’t matter anymore.” She added that it takes aerosols just 5 minutes to travel across a room.
According to CNBC, the World Health Organization issued “airborne precautions” for medical staff after studies revealed that the coronavirus can survive in the air.
Until now, it was not known if the droplets expelled when we breathe or talk are actually contagious.
A study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that aerosolized coronavirus particles can live up to 3 hours in the air, meaning that they could infect people hours after being expelled. Now that we know these particles are infectious, wearing a mask in public becomes even more critical to avoid contracting COVID-19.
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