Part of the reason the coronavirus is so frightening is its invisibility. We can’t see where it lingers and have no idea if we’re coming into contact with it. Sure, we’re social distancing (if you’re not, you better start) but can we still encounter the virus in the air at the grocery store or outside?
We don’t yet have an in-depth understanding of the novel coronavirus, including how it’s transmitted through the air. But a recent preliminary study published in the New England Journal of Medicine gives us some clues.
Researchers examined how long the coronavirus lasted on surfaces like steel and plastic (up to three days ― yikes). They also looked at how long the virus stayed in the air in the form of an “aerosolized particle.”
Aerosolized particles are essentially microscopic, and they’re formed when fluids containing the virus are expelled from a person and cling to dust or moisture in the air and hang there. The researchers found that airborne coronavirus particles stayed floating for up to three hours before falling and clinging to a new surface.
Before you panic, there’s something important to note: This study was conducted in a very controlled setting. The likelihood of encountering the virus in this form is low for an average person, experts have previously told HuffPost. The virus doesn’t stay in the air enough to be a risk to people who are not physically near someone who is infected.
This is because droplets from someone sneezing or coughing are typically much heavier than an aerosolized particle.
“The experimental aerosols used in labs are smaller than what comes out of a cough or sneeze, so they remain in the air at face-level longer than heavier particles would in nature,” Carolyn Machamer, a professor of cell biology whose lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said in a Q&A.
However, the phenomenon is a concern for health care workers. Aerosolized particles can easily form in medical settings during intubation or some other types of procedures like scoping or CPR. This is why proper protective equipment like respirator masks are so imperative for people on the front lines of the pandemic.
You should not be excessively worried about encountering the coronavirus in the air on your daily walk around the neighborhood.
Linsey Marr, an expert in virus transmission by aerosol at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, told the New York Times that you should think of airborne coronavirus transmission like cigarette smoke. Marr, who was not affiliated with the study, said that the closer and sooner you are exposed to the person who exhaled the smoke, the more of a whiff you might get. The exposure decreases the further away you are and the longer the time has passed.
“It sounds scary,” she said, referring to the study’s findings, “but unless you’re close to someone, the amount you’ve been exposed to is very low.”
In other words, you should not be excessively worried about encountering the coronavirus in the air on your daily walk around the neighborhood.
Instead, your real concern should be focused on surfaces. Say you get into an elevator. You should be more careful about touching the buttons than about breathing potentially contaminated air.
Respiratory droplets are still believed to be the most common mode of coronavirus transmission. If the virus was truly airborne, experts think we’d see way more cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, than we already have.
Regardless, all of this is why social distancing and lockdowns are so important. The farther away you are from others, the less likely it is that you’ll come into contact with the virus ― whether it’s through direct exposure, touching a surface or aerosolized particles. You never know who or what could be infected; research is finding that more people don’t know they have the illness and are stealth transmitters of the virus.
Also, continue to wash your hands. Spend at least 20 seconds using warm water and soap (it doesn’t matter what kind) and a clean towel or paper towel to dry them off. Take the time to do it every time you come home, before eating, after using the bathroom and whenever else you think it’s necessary.
It may feel like an overreaction, but it isn’t. Taking this seriously is the only way we can slow the spread and flatten the curve.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.