Tiny airborne particles may pose a big coronavirus problem

At a University of Maryland lab, people infected with the new coronavirus take turns sitting in a chair and putting their faces into the big end of a large cone. They recite the alphabet and sing or just sit quietly for a half hour. Sometimes they cough.

The cone sucks up everything that comes out of their mouths and noses. It’s part of a device called “Gesundheit II” that is helping scientists study a big question: Just how does the virus that causes COVID-19 spread from one person to another?

It clearly hitchhikes on small liquid particles sprayed out by an infected person. People expel particles while coughing, sneezing, singing, shouting, talking and even breathing. But the drops come in a wide range of sizes, and scientists are trying to pin down how risky the various kinds are.

The answer affects what we should all be doing to avoid getting sick. That’s why it was thrust into headlines a few days ago when a U.S. health agency appeared to have shifted its position on the issue, but later said it had published new language in error.

The recommendation to stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart — some authorities cite about half that distance — is based on the idea that larger particles fall to the ground before they can travel very far. They are like the droplets in a spritz of a window cleaner, and they can infect somebody by landing on their nose, mouth or eyes, or maybe being inhaled.

But some scientists are now focusing on tinier particles, the ones that spread more like cigarette smoke. Those are carried by wisps of air and even upward drafts caused by the warmth of our bodies. They can linger in the air for minutes to hours, spreading throughout a room and build up if ventilation is poor.

The potential risk comes from inhaling them. Measles can spread this way, but the new coronavirus is far less contagious than that.

For these particles, called aerosols, “6 feet is not a magic distance,’’ says Linsey Marr, a leading researcher who is studying them at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But she says it’s still important to keep one’s distance from others, “the farther the better,” because aerosols are most concentrated near a source and pose a bigger risk at close range.

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