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Social distancing has quickly changed from a novel, “if-I-can” protection strategy, to an absolute must in the effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
And that begins with protecting ourselves.
Keeping a distance of six feet between yourself and others is now considered standard.
But we’re finding out that, in fact, six feet may be the bare minimum distance needed to protect yourself from infection.
Current research into how the virus is transmitted, and how long it can stay alive in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes, is blowing the six-foot rule out of the water.
Way more than six feet!
Eric Savory is a professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Western University in London, Ontario. He’s been studying “cough airflow,” or how quickly and how far the droplets in a cough or sneeze can travel, since 2018.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to worry about this. Everyone would cover their coughs and sneezes. But we know that this doesn’t always happen. Sneezes and coughs can overtake you before you have a chance to do that.
Looking at previous studies for guidance, Savory discovered that cough airflow had always been measured directly in front of the mouth — “right at the source.”
But what about how far and fast those droplets travel once they’ve been expelled?
Savory designed a specially constructed “cough chamber.” It’s a two-meter (six-foot) enclosed cube with a hole and chin rest at one end. Subjects who were sick with influenza, RSV or cold-causing coronaviruses were asked to cough into the chamber.
Using a high-speed camera and laser light, he tracked the movement of those expelled droplets through the air.
At top speed, they were moving at a rate of 1.2 meters (about 4 feet) per second. And they remained visible on camera for about four seconds before disappearing.
Do the math. Those droplets traveled a complete distance of 16 feet.
But coughs and sneezes aren’t the only reason we need to enlarge that six-foot social distancing rule between people.
It’s not just coughing or sneezing, either
At first, experts believed that the virus was only spread when someone coughed or sneezed, sending virus-carrying droplets into the air forcefully, at a speed that would be hard for someone to avoid who was close by.
But now research is showing that the virus could be spreading through aerosol particles that are emitted whenever we breathe or talk.
William Ristenpart, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Davis, explains this phenomenon. He says that we experience the spread of aerosol particles every day.
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If someone on one side of the room puts on perfume or opens a box of chocolate chip cookies, the smell eventually reaches the other side of the room.
“It’s not because [the perfume wearer/cookie eater] is coughing,” he says. Rather, it’s due to turbulence created by air mixing that carries aerosol droplets around the room.
Scientists working on this phenomenon believe that the terrible ease with which the coronavirus spreads is good evidence that this is what’s happening.
And, I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking any chances. Six feet just doesn’t seem to be far enough for effective social distancing.
So, how do you keep your social distance?
Here are a few tips on how to maintain and even increase your distance from others in different situations.
Grocery shopping. Many stores have instituted one-way aisles to help you avoid coming face-to-face with others.
If you see someone coming towards you, go down the next aisle and circle around for the item you needed. Yes, shopping will take longer. But it’s worth it.
Outdoor exercise. With spring here, we’re dying to get outside. With many parks and beaches closed, we need to find other places to exercise outdoors. Walking, running, or hiking locally, alone or with a member of your household, is the way to go.
Avoid areas where people have congregated. For example, when groundskeepers came to my condominium to work on the grass and shrubs, I observed they were not wearing masks. Nor were they working at any distance from each other.
On that particular day, I chose to stay inside, rather than risk walking through the area where they’d been breathing, talking and singing.
As a general rule, the further you can stay from another person, the safer you are. It’s what we need to do right now to protect ourselves.
But remember, don’t let social distance turn into loneliness. It’s important to turn to technology and creative ways to stay connected to others — both for your immunity and your overall health.
- COVID-19: ‘Cough chamber’ shows six-feet not far enough — Neuroscience News
- Stay 6 Feet Apart, We’re Told. But How Far Can Air Carry Coronavirus? — The New York Times
- Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen EmissionsPotential Implications for Reducing Transmission of COVID-19 — JAMA
- Why 6 feet may not be enough social distance to avoid COVID-19 — Science News
- Just breathing or talking may be enough to spread COVID-19 after all — Science News
- Rapid Expert Consultation on the Possibility of Bioaerosol Spread of SARS-CoV-2 for the COVID-19 Pandemic — The National Academies Press