MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – For weeks, state and county health officials have hammered home the message that Alabamians should keep a 6-foot barrier between themselves and others when they go out in public.
Some stores even have put down markers in their buildings illustrating that separation.
The idea, the experts have said, is that the novel coronavirus will fall harmlessly to the ground before it can infect a new victim.
Now, research on the virus that causes COVID-19 has thrown that guidance into doubt.
The study, published Friday in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, is based on research in two hospital wards in Wuhan, China, where the virus first emerged.
The authors wrote that the virus was “widely distributed in the air and on object surfaces in both the ICU and GW (the COVID-19 ward), implying a potentially high infection risk for medical staff and other close contacts.”
The study also states that the coronavirus’ “aerosol distribution characteristics in the GW indicate that the transmission distance of SARS-CoV-2 might be 4 m.”
If true, 4 meters translates to roughly 13 feet, more than double the distancing recommended by the CDC and Alabama officials.
Arrol Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Health, defended the current guidelines. She pointed to an acknowledgment by the study’s authors about the report’s limitations – that the nasal swap test does not indicate the mount of viable virus examined and uncertainty over the minimum dose required to infect someone.
“At this time, based upon this study, CDC has not changed its guidance and continues to recommend a consistent distance of six feet of space between persons,” she wrote in an email to FOX10 News.
Rendi Murphree, director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services, told FOX10 News that recommendations have evolved as scientists have learned more about the virus – even if the 6-foot barrier remains unchanged.
She cited another study suggesting that the coronavirus may linger in the air on tiny respiratory droplets in gaseous clouds that are expelled when people cough or sneeze.
“These and other recent findings (like asymptomatic and presymptomatic viral shedding) are behind CDC’s recommendation to wear a face covering when you are out and about in the community,” she wrote in an email. “To protect others from your germs.”
The Wuhan study published by the CDC last week also found high concentrations of the virus on surfaces throughout the two hospital wards, including computer mouses, trash cans, sickbed handrails and doorknobs. The study’s authors noted that those objects are most likely to be touched by patients or medical staffers.
“These results suggest that medical staff should perform hand hygiene practices immediately after patient contact,” they wrote.
Sheehan wrote that research has shown that once droplets from sneezing or coughing reach a surface, the amount of virus generally is smaller.
“The virus droplet does not come back into the air from a contaminated surface,” she wrote. “Rather, a person may touch a contaminated surface then touch his/her nose, mouth, or eyes. While touching a contaminated surface is not as likely a way to transmit COVID-19, keeping hands clean and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces are important ways to further reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Research last month by the National Institutes for Health finds that the coronavirus can be detected in the air for up to three hours and can live on plastic and stainless steal for up to three days.
But Murphree agreed that the biggest risk to people is transferring the virus from a surface to their faces.
“It can’t crawl on a surface or jump into the air from the surface,” she wrote. “But if you touch the surface and then put your hands in your mouth, nose, or eyes you can infect yourself.”