Virginia scientists say coronavirus lingers in air; WHO says don’t rule it out


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Under pressure from Virginia scientists and more than 200 others internationally, the World Health Organization has updated its advisory on how the coronavirus could be spreading throughout the air, particularly indoors where masks may not be mandated.

At least three professors from Virginia Tech’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering signed onto a letter urging the WHO to take a stronger stance on ‘airborne transmission.’ The WHO’s recent shift in response, albeit a small one, comes as new cases arise in a number of states.

Dr. Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, is an atmospheric chemist. He said many people with his expertise have been called upon during the pandemic to research how effective different mask materials are at preventing the movement of potentially infectious particles.

 “It just doesn’t sit right with all of us that airborne transmission can’t happen, just knowing what we know about how particles stay in environments, how they build up and how they move,” Isaacman-VanWertz said. “So we should be living our lives and operating in a way where that is a possibility.”

For several months, health officials have said that the coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets that fall onto surfaces shortly after people cough, sneeze or talk. Isaacman-VanWertz said many scientists are signing onto the theory that smaller, lighter particles can linger in the air and move throughout a room for longer periods of time.

“So being six feet apart in a room is maybe not as important as wearing a mask because that six feet in an indoor environment isn’t super relevant,” Isaacman-VanWertz said.

The WHO’s updated advisory said airborne transmission is a risk during medical procedures but ‘more studies are urgently needed to investigate’ reported outbreaks in closed spaces like restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship and workplaces.

“In these outbreaks, aerosol transmission, particularly in these indoor locations where there are crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces where infected persons spend long periods of time with others, cannot be ruled out,” the advisory continues.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order mandating masks for most people in indoor public spaces at the end of May. The order has exceptions for eating, drinking and exercising. That means, as more Virginians venture to gyms and restaurants during ‘Phase Three,’ more people are likely to be in close quarters with unmasked people.

If you plan to go out, Isaacman-VanWertz said it’s best to stay outdoors where social distancing is possible. “When you’re outdoors, distance is going to do a lot and, when you’re indoors, distance is going to do a lot less,” he said. “Indoors there is only so much air but outdoors there is a lot so it dilutes quickly.”

Isaacman-VanWertz added that, since masks are more effective at keeping infectious particles in than keeping them out, people should also consider how many others will be wearing masks before entering a space.

“When you’re wearing a mask, you’re protecting other people and you’re only sort of protecting yourself,” he said.

Some Virginians had little patience for the governor’s mask mandate from the get-go, calling it an infringement on individual liberty. The Virginia Department of Health, the enforcement arm of the mandate, had received more than 6,700 complaints of alleged violations by Monday afternoon. VDH didn’t immediately respond when asked how many resulted in disciplinary action.

A spokesperson for VDH said the state is working on updating its website with more information about airborne transmission. For now, VDH is aligning with the WHO’s updated advisory.

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