As the Trump administration recommends that some Americans start wearing masks, a group of scientists on Wednesday issued a timely warning.
Studies suggest the coronavirus could spread through “normal breathing” and talking, according to a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Although research is incomplete, Dr. Harvey Fineberg laid out the current evidence for the claim in a letter to the Trump administration.
“While the current SARS-CoV-2 specific research is limited, the results of available studies are consistent with aerosolization of virus from normal breathing,” Fineberg wrote.
Spread via breathing cannot be ruled out
The disturbing claim reflects one of the dreadful realities of life under a new virus: beyond the fear of death and economic implosion, there’s plenty of confusion surrounding COVID-19 itself. How does it spread? Should people wear masks or not?
In his letter, Fineberg explained that some studies suggest the virus can become airborne through normal breathing, in addition to coughing and sneezing. Findings that viral RNA from the coronavirus may linger in the air support the possibility of “spread via bioaerosols generated directly by patients’ exhalation,” but Fineberg was careful to observe that the presence of viral RNA does not necessarily indicate “sufficient amounts to produce infection.”
A study at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found “widespread” traces of viral RNA from the coronavirus in isolation wards for COVID-19 patients. Another study from the University of Hong Kong, which had not been peer-reviewed, found that surgical masks “could reduce transmission of human coronavirus and influenza infections” if infected patients wear them.
Other studies suggested that the virus can travel in the air, but more research is needed.
“Individuals vary in the degree to which they produce bioaerosols through normal breathing,” the letter said. “This may have a bearing on [the] efficiency of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by different infected but asymptomatic individuals.”
Confusion as experts flip-flop on masks
A recent MIT study found that the virus may travel up to 27 feet, contradicting the six-foot social distancing rules advised by authorities. Dr. Anthony Fauci called the claim “misleading,” pointing out that a distance of 27 feet might be obtained by an excessively hard sneeze.
Confusion lingers as the federal government weighs advising that Americans wear masks in public. Experts had previously told the public that masks are not effective at protecting people from getting infected.
Dr. Fauci mentioned the findings on coronavirus spreading through breathing when discussing the change Friday. “Because of some recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing — the better part of valor is that when you’re out, when you can’t maintain that 6-foot distance, to wear some sort of facial covering,” he told “Fox and Friends” on Friday.
President Trump said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that Americans in coronavirus hot spots wear cloth masks — not medical-grade or surgical masks — to keep supplies for medical workers in stock.