Stopping the Spread: How to Handle COVID-19

November 2020

Months after the coronavirus spread around the world, there is still much about the virus that remains unclear. Even the facts scientists have uncovered can be difficult to understand and hard to keep up with. Messaging about the virus has changed greatly as scientists have learned more about how the virus acts and what we need to be doing to prevent its spread.

Early on, many scientists thought that preventing surface transmission (fomites) was most important in stopping the spread of the virus. Since then, further research has found that blocking aerosols can be the key to controlling the disease. A journal article from China found that, “Various studies have suggested that SARS‐CoV‐2 can be transmitted through droplets and aerosols, and so hand hygiene is inadequate to prevent infection of SARS‐CoV‐2, and blocking masks are needed.” With the knowledge that aerosols are the primary way the virus spreads, washing hands remains important, but wearing masks and face coverings becomes an apparent and simple solution.

Aside from wearing masks, most people frequently cite standing 6 feet apart as the necessary distance between two people to stop the spread of the virus. While putting distance between two people allows the large droplets of virus in the air to dissipate and become less infectious, this metric is a little arbitrary. The World Health Organization recommends people stand at least 1 meter apart, a mere 3 feet, while other organizations suggest far greater distances. A researcher at MIT found that a sneeze can actually travel up to 27 feet. The key is to remember that there is no specific distance that will suddenly make you safe. Instead remember to wear a mask and stay as far apart as possible, especially when indoors.

Another crucial part of stopping the virus is to test enough people. Test positivity rate is the percentage of positive tests out of the number of tests administered. Having a low positivity rate is important for two reasons. First, it means the transmission rate of the virus is low. Secondly, it indicates that enough tests are being administered relative to the number of people infected with the virus. Being able to identify members of the community with the virus allows them to properly quarantine and prevent further spread of the disease. An important thing to remember about this virus in particular is the amount of transmission that happens when people are asymptomatic. An article in Nature Medicine reported the findings of a research group in China, stating that 44% of transmissions happen during the presymptomatic stage. This means that as a community, we need to take preventative measures even when we have little reason to believe we or the other person in an interaction may have the virus. Containing the spread of a disease such as the coronavirus can be a daunting task, but it is not altogether impossible. The most widely known preventative measures do in fact prevent the spread of the virus and save lives. The goal of these measures is not actually to completely stop the spread of the virus. The only way to guarantee that level of safety is complete isolation. As we move into a more open environment, people are less likely to take that path. Instead, we look to minimize exposure. By complying with New York State preventative measures, hopefully we can contain the virus further and save more lives.