The coronavirus spreads through the air, says the updated guidance posted by The Centers for Disease Control. Infections through inhalation at distances greater than six feet from an infectious source are less likely than at closer distances, but can occur. The science brief put out on the agency’s official website reflects current knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The CDC previous public health guidance said the virus spreads “mainly through close contact from person to person.” The statement summarized below asserts that although the understanding of how transmission occurs has shifted, “the ways to prevent infection with this virus have not” reaffirming that the measures that CDC recommends remain effective for these forms of transmission.
SARS-CoV-2 is Transmitted by Exposure to Infectious Respiratory Fluids
The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory fluids carrying infectious virus. Exposure occurs in three principal ways: (1) inhalation of very fine respiratory droplets and aerosol particles, (2) deposition of respiratory droplets and particles on exposed mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eye by direct splashes and sprays, and (3) touching mucous membranes with hands that have been soiled either directly by virus-containing respiratory fluids or indirectly by touching surfaces with virus on them. The brief lays out how exposure to respiratory fluids (carried through largest droplets within seconds to minutes or smallest fine droplets or air sol particles that may remain suspended for minutes to hours) that cause Covid-19 occurs in three principal ways:
- Inhalation of air carrying very small fine droplets and aerosol particles that contain infectious virus. Risk of transmission is greatest within three to six feet of an infectious source where the concentration of these very fine droplets and particles is greatest.
- Deposition of virus carried in exhaled droplets and particles onto exposed mucous membranes (i.e., “splashes and sprays”, such as being coughed on). Risk of transmission is likewise greatest close to an infectious source where the concentration of these exhaled droplets and particles is greatest.
- Touching mucous membranes with hands soiled by exhaled respiratory fluids containing virus or from touching inanimate surfaces contaminated with virus.
The Risk of Infection Varies According To The Amount Of virus To Which a Person Is Exposed
Once infectious droplets and particles are exhaled, they move outward from the source. The risk for infection decreases with increasing distance from the source and increasing time after exhalation. Two principal processes determine the amount of virus to which a person is exposed in the air or by touching a surface contaminated by virus: decreasing concentration of virus in the air, progressive loss of viral viability and infectiousness over time influenced by environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation (e.g., sunlight).
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 From Inhalation of Virus In the Air Farther than Six Feet From An Infectious Source Can Occur
Infections through inhalation at distances greater than six feet from an infectious source are less likely than at closer distances, but can occur. These transmission events have involved the presence of an infectious person exhaling virus indoors for an extended time (more than 15 minutes and in some cases hours) leading to virus concentrations in the air space sufficient to transmit infections to people more than 6 feet away, and in some cases to people who have passed through that space soon after the infectious person left. Per published reports, factors that increase the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection under these circumstances include:
- Enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation or air handling within which the concentration of exhaled respiratory fluids, especially very fine droplets and aerosol particles, can build-up in the air space.
- Increased exhalation of respiratory fluids if the infectious person is engaged in physical exertion or raises their voice (e.g., exercising, shouting, singing).
- Prolonged exposure to these conditions, typically more than 15 minutes.
Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission
The infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2 needed to transmit infection has not been established. Current evidence strongly suggests transmission from contaminated surfaces does not contribute substantially to new infections. Despite these knowledge gaps, the available evidence continues to demonstrate that existing recommendations to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission remain effective. These include physical distancing, community use of well-fitting masks (e.g., barrier face coverings, procedure/surgical masks), adequate ventilation, and avoidance of crowded indoor spaces. These methods will reduce transmission both from inhalation of virus and deposition of virus on exposed mucous membranes.