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Experts caution against fear as CDC says coronavirus can spread through air

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Health officials say wearing a mask is an effective way to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to others.
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Health officials say wearing a mask is an effective way to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to others.

MADISON (WKOW) -- After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines indicating coronavirus can spread through the air, experts said people shouldn't be alarmed.

"This should not instill fear," Tim Bertram said Saturday. Bertram researches aerosol particles at UW-Madison and is an air quality expert.

Airborne transmission of the virus happens through small particles that can spread beyond the six-foot distance often cited by scientists. That distance protects against respiratory droplets, which are the most common source of COVID-19 spread.

Airborne transmission is also tricky because the virus can linger.

"These viruses are very small particles, and they can stay in the air for more than 30 minutes, maybe even several hours," infectious diseases expert Ajay Sethi said.

Though the virus can exist in the air for a while. Bertram said airborne transmission isn't very likely in short interactions between people.

"It's not necessarily something you're thinking about when you're just passing someone in a grocery store and you might still be six feet apart," he said. "It's the environment when you're sitting in a conference room with 10 or 15 people for an hour."

In situations like that, particularly if there is poor ventilation, virus particles build up in the air, which can lead to transmission.

Bertram said he often explains airborne transmission as being similar to being around someone who is smoking.

"You know you don't want to stand right next to that person smoking because that's where you're going to inhale the most smoke," he said. "But if you're standing in the corner of the room, you're still going to kind of smell it, and maybe it's okay if you're there for a few minutes, but you wouldn't want to hang out there for a super long time."

Bertram said good ventilation is a key element in avoiding airborne transmission, so outdoor spaces reduce the risk of viral spread.

However, Sethi said an even better bet is avoiding contact with others as much as possible.

"In Wisconsin, where we have a really high incidence of COVID right now, the chance that you're going to come across somebody who's carrying the virus is much higher today than it was in the middle of summer when we were doing a little better," he said.

Sethi said airborne transmission can be tied to superspreader events, like choir rehearsals, weddings and parties.

He said people should be careful in the coming weeks and months to avoid unintentionally creating superspreader events.

"The Packers are doing really well, and I'm sure there are a lot of people watching games together," he said. "During the holidays we celebrate, people are tempted to host gatherings. All of those things are going to facilitate transmission."

Both Bertram and Sethi said existing COVID-19 precautions like wearing masks, avoiding indoor gatherings, good hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing will help mitigate possible airborne transmission.

"If they take those precautions, then they're covered," Sethi said. "They're safe."

As the pandemic presses on, scientists continue to learn about the coronavirus. Bertram said this increasing knowledge is good.

"The more we lean about this, the better it prepares us to be able to come up with strategies to reduce transmission," he said. "It enables us to make the best decisions, and it enables us not to be afraid of being able to go out and do things if we can take the best precautions as we go forward."

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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