Erin Bromage outlines on her blog, ErinBromage.com, an evidence-based outline of how the COVID-19 virus might spread in different settings. It probably won’t surprise most of you to find out that it is unlikely you’ll catch or transmit the virus while running alone. She writes (abridged):
So now let’s get to the crux of it. Where are the personal dangers from reopening?
When you think of outbreak clusters, what are the big ones that come to mind? Most people would say cruise ships. But you would be wrong. Ship outbreaks, while concerning, don’t land in the top 50 outbreaks to date.
Ignoring the terrible outbreaks in nursing homes, we find that the biggest outbreaks are in prisons, religious ceremonies, and workplaces, such as meat packing facilities and call centers. Any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and high density of people, spells trouble.
Some of the biggest super-spreading events are:
- Meat packing: In meat processing plants, densely packed workers must communicate to one another amidst the deafening drum of industrial machinery and a cold-room virus-preserving environment. There are now outbreaks in 115 facilities across 23 states, 5000+ workers infected, with 20 dead. (ref)
- Weddings, funerals, birthdays: 10% of early spreading events
- Business networking: Face-to-face business networking like the Biogen Conference in Boston in late February.
As we move back to work, or go to a restaurant, let’s look at what can happen in those environments.
Restaurants: Some really great shoe-leather epidemiology demonstrated clearly the effect of a single asymptomatic carrier in a restaurant environment (see below). The infected person (A1) sat at a table and had dinner with 9 friends. Dinner took about 1 to 1.5 hours. During this meal, the asymptomatic carrier released low-levels of virus into the air from their breathing. Airflow (from the restaurant’s various airflow vents) was from right to left. Approximately 50% of the people at the infected person’s table became sick over the next 7 days. 75% of the people on the adjacent downwind table became infected. And even 2 of the 7 people on the upwind table were infected (believed to happen by turbulent airflow). No one at tables E or F became infected, they were out of the main airflow from the air conditioner on the right to the exhaust fan on the left of the room. (Ref)
[Ed note, there are more examples on Bromage’s site]
Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint. We know that 60 people in a volleyball court-sized room (choir) results in massive infections. Same situation with the restaurant and the call center. Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.
The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.
Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside.
When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers – all day; customers – an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low. But, for the store worker, the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky.
Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.
If you are sitting in a well ventilated space, with few people, the risk is low.
If I am outside, and I walk past someone, remember it is “dose and time” needed for infection. You would have to be in their airstream for 5+ minutes for a chance of infection. While joggers may be releasing more virus due to deep breathing, remember the exposure time is also less due to their speed. Please do maintain physical distance, but the risk of infection in these scenarios are low. Here is a great article in Vox that discusses the low risk of running and cycling in detail.