People who maintain 60 feet of distance from others indoors are no more protected than if they socially distanced by 6 feet, according to a peer-reviewed study published April 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America.
Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Martin Bazant and John Bush, PhD, developed a model to calculate indoor exposure risk to COVID-19 by factoring in the amount of time spent inside, air filtration and circulation, immunization, variant strains, mask use, and respiratory activity such as breathing, eating or talking.
“We argue there really isn’t much of a benefit to the six-foot rule, especially when people are wearing masks,” Mr. Bazant told CNBC. “It really has no physical basis because the air a person is breathing while wearing a mask tends to rise and comes down elsewhere in the room so you’re more exposed to the average background than you are to a person at a distance.”
As with smoking, even people wearing masks can be affected by secondhand smoke that makes its way around the enclosed area and lingers. The same logic applies to airborne droplets of the virus, according to the study. However, the study did note that mask use by both infected and susceptible people reduces “respiratory plumes” and thus increases the amount of time people may safely spend together indoors.
When crafting guidelines, the CDC and World Health Organization have overlooked the amount of time spent indoors, Mr. Bazant claims.
“What our analysis continues to show is that many spaces that have been shut down in fact don’t need to be,” Mr. Bazant said. “Oftentimes, the space is large enough, the ventilation is good enough, the amount of time people spend together is such that those spaces can be safely operated even at full capacity, and the scientific support for reduced capacity in those spaces is really not very good.”
Opening windows or installing new fans to keep air moving may be just as effective or more effective than purchasing a new filtration system, Mr. Bazant said.
The CDC currently recommends staying at least 6 feet away from other people and wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19, citing the fact that the virus spreads mainly among people who are in close contact for a prolonged period.
“The distancing isn’t helping you that much and it’s also giving you a false sense of security, because you’re as safe at six feet as you are at 60 feet if you’re indoors. Everyone in that space is at roughly the same risk, actually,” Mr. Bazant said.
After three rounds of peer review, Mr. Bazant says he hopes the study will influence social distancing policies.
NEW DELHI — More than a year after the pandemic began, infections worldwide have surpassed their previous peak. The average number of coronavirus cases reported each day is now higher than it has ever been.
“Cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday.
A major reason for the increase: the ferocity of India’s second wave. The country accounts for about one in three of all new cases.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Earlier this year, India appeared to be weathering the pandemic. The number of daily cases dropped below 10,000 and the government launched a vaccination drive powered by locally made vaccines.
But experts say that changes in behavior and the influence of new variants have combined to produce a tidal wave of new cases.
India is adding more than 250,000 new infections a day — and if current trends continue, that figure could soar to 500,000 within a month, said Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan.
While infections are rising around the country, some places are bearing the brunt of the surge. Six states and Delhi, the nation’s capital, account for about two-thirds of new daily cases. Maharashtra, home to India’s financial hub, Mumbai, represents about a quarter of the nation’s total.
Mohammad Shahzad, a 40-year-old accountant, was one of many desperately seeking care. He developed a fever and grew breathless on the afternoon of April 15. His wife, Shazia, rushed him to the nearest hospital. It was full, but staffers checked his oxygen level: 62, dangerously low.
For three hours, they went from hospital to hospital trying to get him admitted, with no luck. She took him home. At 3:30 a.m., with Shahzad struggling to breathe, she called an ambulance. When the driver arrived, he asked if Shahzad truly needed oxygen — otherwise he would save it for the most serious patients.
The scene at the hospital was “harrowing,” said Shazia: a line of ambulances, people crying and pleading, a man barely breathing. Shahzad finally found a bed. Now Shazia and her two children, 8 and 6, have also developed covid-19 symptoms.
From early morning until late at night, Prafulla Gudadhe’s phone does not stop ringing. Each call is from a constituent and each call is the same: Can he help to arrange a hospital bed for a loved one?
Gudadhe is a municipal official in Nagpur, a city in the interior of Maharashtra. “We tell them we will try, but there are no beds,” he said. About 10 people in his ward have died at home in recent days after they couldn’t get admitted to hospitals, Gudadhe said, his voice weary. “I am helpless.”
Kamlesh Sailor knows how bad it is. Worse than the previous wave of the pandemic, like nothing he’s ever seen.
Sailor is the president of a crematorium trust in the city of Surat. Last week, the steel pipes in two of the facility’s six chimneys melted from constant use. Where the facility used to receive about 20 bodies a day, he said, now it is receiving 100.
“We try to control our emotions,” he said. “But it is unbearable.”
As states rush to fully reopen businesses, and Americans leave their masks at home in greater numbers, it appears that the feared “fourth surge” of COVID is now underway in many parts of the country. Coronavirus cases are up in half of all states, and up nationally by 9 percent compared to last week. While the latest wave appears to be much less deadly—largely targeting younger people who haven’t yet been vaccinated—it adds urgency to the effort to get shots in arms as quickly as possible.
The good news: that’s happening. Today the US surpassed the milestone of 200M vaccinations given, with nearly a quarter of the population now fully vaccinated (including nearly two-thirds of those over age 65). The progress on vaccines comes as the Johnson & Johnson COVID jab is sidelined, over safety concerns stemming from a small number of rare blood-clotting cases in younger women that caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to urge states to pause the use of the shot. Wednesday’s inconclusive meeting of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meant an additional 7 to 10 days of limbo for the J&J vaccine, drawing criticism from experts who warned that the negative publicity could undermine confidence in vaccines among the general population, both in the US and around the world.
Count us among those skeptical of the decision to pull back on the J&J vaccine, which plays a pivotal role in the campaign against COVID, given that it’s a single-dose vaccine that can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, making it more easily distributed than the two-dose mRNA vaccines. While the blood clotting cases are serious, and merit investigation, the odds of suffering a vaccine-related blood clot are far outweighed by an individual’s risk of death or severe complications from COVID itself, let alone the chances of getting a blood clot from other medications (such as oral contraceptives).
It was a big week for innumeracy, unfortunately: headlines abounded about the CDC’s discovery of 5,800 “breakthrough” COVID cases, in which fully vaccinated people still contracted the disease. Unsurprisingly, the numerator got the headlines, not the denominator—the 80M people who’ve been fully vaccinated. Your chances of hitting a hole-in-one as an amateur golfer are better than the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated. Furthermore, of those 5,800 people infected after being fully vaccinated, only 7 percent were hospitalized, and 74 died. Each a tragedy, to be sure—but we’ll take those odds any day.
Get vaccinated as soon as you can.
President Biden‘s announcement that there will be enough vaccines for all adults by May is raising hopes for a return to normal soon.
But the next few months in the pandemic are critical. Concern is growing over moves by some states to lift restrictions already, while new variants of the virus are on the rise in the U.S. Experts warn that actions taken now risk delaying getting back to some semblance of normal.
Health officials are urging restrictions to remain in place for the final stretch, saying that it will not be much longer before the situation markedly improves, and it does not make sense to lift all restrictions when widespread vaccinations are in sight.
Biden on Wednesday issued his most forceful comments to date, calling out the governors of Texas and Mississippi for lifting their states’ mask mandates and all capacity limits on businesses.
He noted that vaccinations for all adults are on the horizon.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it,” he said. “It still matters.”
Estimates differ on when exactly the country might return to something like “normal,” though many say they expect this summer will be much better.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC on Wednesday that he thinks even as soon as April will be “profoundly better,” given that vaccine supply will have ramped up significantly, allowing vaccine availability to be “wide open” by then.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday put the time frame at three months until the country could be vaccinated.
“The next three months are pivotal,” she said.
Thomas Tsai, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that by summer, “I think we can have a much more, I don’t want to say normal, but at least a ‘new normal’ summer.”
But experts warn that the return to normal could actually be delayed if restrictions are lifted too soon, causing a new spike in cases in the near term.
Tsai likened the current situation to the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game. “Progress has been made; it’s OK to take stock of that,” he said. “How we play the next two innings determines if this is a single game or turns into a doubleheader.”
Maintaining restrictions as people get fatigued and see the end in sight could be a challenge, though, particularly in red states that were skeptical of instituting health restrictions from the start.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, pointed to the ongoing vaccination campaign in saying that the time has come to end restrictions.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said Tuesday. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.”
Responding to Biden’s criticism on Wednesday, Reeves added: “Mississippians don’t need handlers.”
“As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts,” he added. “I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
Gottlieb argued for a middle ground, saying that public health officials risk having the public simply ignore all guidance if they do not provide a “realistic glide path to a better future,” though March is “a little bit premature” to lift all restrictions.
“March really is a difficult month,” he said. “It sits between two worlds. February was a raging epidemic, it was very clear we needed to have measures in place. I think April’s going to be profoundly better, and March is sitting in the middle.”
Variants of the virus also pose a threat that adds another degree of uncertainty. The most common variant spreading in the US, known as B117, or the United Kingdom variant, responds well to vaccines, but is more infectious.
“The B117 hyper-transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date,” Walensky said.
Variants first identified in Brazil and South Africa also pose a risk of reducing the effectiveness of the vaccines, though the extent is not fully clear, and vaccine manufacturers are preparing backup plans to provide booster shots or updated vaccines if necessary.
“We are at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” Walensky said. “So much can turn in the next few weeks.”
After weeks of declines, both cases and deaths are ticking up. According to CDC data, the seven-day average of new cases per day, at 66,000, is up 3.5 percent from the past week, and deaths, at just over 2,000 per day, are up 2.2 percent.
Barbara Alexander, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, issued a statement Wednesday calling on people to continue wearing masks, distancing from others, and avoiding large gatherings.
“All of these measures together will bring us closer to ending the pandemic,” she said. “Abandoning them now will postpone the day we can put COVID-19 behind us.”
Still, the declines in past weeks and the increasing pace of vaccinations is offering some hope after a long year.
“I’m more optimistic than I have been in the last year,” Tsai said.
In recent weeks, U.S. coronavirus case data — long a closely-watched barometer of the pandemic’s severity — has sent some encouraging signals: The rate of newly recorded infections is plummeting from coast to coast and the worst surge yet is finally relenting. But scientists are split on why, exactly, it is happening.
And every explanation is appended with two significant caveats: The country is still in a bad place, continuing to notch more than 90,000 new cases every day, and recent progress could still be imperiled, either by new fast-spreading virus variants or by relaxed social distancing measures.
The rolling daily average of new infections in the United States hit its all-time high of 248,200 on Jan. 12, according to data gathered and analyzed by The Washington Post. Since then, the number has dropped every day, hitting 91,000 on Sunday, its lowest level since November.
A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the idea that Americans are now seeing the effect of their good behavior — not of increased vaccinations.
“I don’t think the vaccine is having much of an impact at all on case rates,” Tom Frieden said in an interview Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “It’s what we’re doing right: staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors.”
However, Frieden noted, the country’s numbers are still higher than they were during the spring and summer virus waves and “we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”
“We’ve had three surges,” Frieden said. “Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
The current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said in a round of TV interviews Sunday morning that behavior will be crucial to averting yet another spike in infections and that it is far too soon for states to be rescinding mask mandates. Walensky also noted the declining numbers but said cases are still “more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer.”
“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, publisher of a popular coronavirus model, are among those who attribute declining cases to vaccines and the virus’s seasonality, which scientists have said may allow it to spread faster in colder weather.
In the IHME’s most recent briefing, published Friday, the authors write that cases have “declined sharply,” dropping nearly 50 percent since early January.
“Two [factors] are driving down transmission,” the briefing says. “1) the continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71 percent, and 2) declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”
The model predicts 152,000 more covid-19 deaths by June 1, but projects that the vaccine rollout will save 114,000 lives.
In the past week, the country collectively administered 1.62 million vaccine doses per day, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of state and federal data. It was the best week yet for the shots, topping even President Biden’s lofty goal of 1.5 million vaccinations per day.
Nearly 40 million people have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Experts have said that 70 percent to 90 percent of people need to have immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection, to quash the pandemic. And some leading epidemiologists have agreed with Frieden, saying that not enough people are vaccinated to make such a sizable dent in the case rates.
A fourth, less optimistic explanation has also emerged: More new cases are simply going undetected. On Twitter, Eleanor Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, said an increased focus on vaccine distribution and administration could be making it harder to get tested.
“I worry that it’s at least partly an artifact of resources being moved from testing to vaccination,” Murray said of the declines.
The Covid Tracking Project, which compiles and publishes data on coronavirus testing, has indeed observed a steady recent decrease in tests, from more than 2 million per day in mid-January to about 1.6 million a month later. The project’s latest update blames this dip on “a combination of reduced demand as well as reduced availability or accessibility of testing.”
“Demand for testing may have dropped because fewer people are sick or have been exposed to infected individuals, but also perhaps because testing isn’t being promoted as heavily,” the authors write.
They note that a backlog of tests over the holidays probably produced an artificial spike of reported tests in early January, but that even when adjusted, it’s still “unequivocally the wrong direction for a country that needs to understand the movements of the virus during a slow vaccine rollout and the spread of multiple new variants.”
Where most experts agree: The mutated variants of the virus pose perhaps the biggest threat to the country’s recovery. One is spreading rapidly and another, known as B.1.351, contains a mutation that may help the virus partly evade natural and vaccine-induced antibodies.
Fewer than 20 cases have been reported in the United States, but a critically ill man in France underscores the variant’s potentially dangerous consequences. The 58-year-old had a mild coronavirus infection in September and the B.1.351 strain reinfected him four months later.
No matter what’s causing the current downturn in new infections, experts have urged Americans to avoid complacency.
“Masks, distancing, ventilation, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated when eligible. These are the tools we have to continue the long trip down the tall mountain,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said on Twitter. “The variants may throw us a curve ball, but if we keep driving down transmission we can get to a better place.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday released long-awaited guidance on safely reopening schools, emphasizing the importance of having schools open as long as proper safety precautions are followed.
The guidance states it is “critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible,” given the benefits of in-person learning.
The top recommendations for doing so safely are universal wearing of masks by students, staff and teachers as well as distancing so that people are six feet apart.
Vaccination of teachers should be prioritized, the agency said, but “should not be considered a condition” of reopening schools.
Schools can adjust whether they are fully in-person or hybrid depending on the level of spread in the surrounding community and mitigation measures in place.
Schools are encouraged to use “podding” to separate students into smaller groups to help make contract tracing easier.