Your diligent hand hygiene, mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding groups and gatherings have become “the new normal” in preventing the spread of COVID-19, as recommended by the CDC. However, according to one expert, there is one aspect of infection that many of us are overlooking: time.
In a post that has gone viral over the last few weeks, The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them, Erin Bromage, Ph.D., a comparative immunologist and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, explains that a COVID-19 infection can be summarized by a simple equation:
“Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time.”
Quite simply, the amount of time you spend in a place or environment where the virus is lingering can be a huge determinant on whether or not you will get sick.
In order to protect yourself, Dr. Bromage encourages asking yourself a few questions before you venture out into the world—especially as social distancing measures are relaxed. The simple trick is to wonder:
How many people are you going to encounter?
How much airflow is there around you?
How long will you be in the environment?
Dr. Bromage explains that the virus is spread via respiratory droplets released in the air. While there’s a very small chance you are going to get infected by a carrier who is simply breathing, your chances increase dramatically via a cough, sneeze, and even singing, as larger levels of viral particles are released into the air. However, even if you are in a space where someone who is infected with COVID-19 is breathing or talking, releasing lower levels of viral particles, the longer you are exposed to the viral particles, your chances of also contacting the virus increase.
He also discusses a variety of “super-spreader” events that were pinpointed via contact tracing (the practice of locating and contacting individuals who have been in contact or spent time near an infected person.) They took place at meat processing plants, large gatherings and events such as weddings, funerals, religious services, and conferences, and restaurants. “Any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and high density of people, spells trouble,” he explains.
Again, time comes into play.
“The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time,” Dr. Bromage explains. “In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.”
When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration)—whether you are shopping at the grocery store or mall, dining at a restaurant, or over at a friend’s house—it all comes down to the equation. He explains, “You need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers — all day; customers — an hour).”
For a person shopping, this translates to low density, high air volume of the store, and probably a short amount of time. So, as a shopper, your chance of infection is low. However, if you are a store worker, “the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky.”
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