The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there’s one thing most people diagnosed with COVID-19 did before they got sick: They were in close contact with someone infected. According to the CDC’s official statement, “The virus that causes COVID-19 most commonly spreads between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet, or 2 arm lengths),” the agency says. “It spreads through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols, produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes.” Read on to see why this puts you in danger, and how to avoid it—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
Avoid “enclosed spaces” with “inadequate ventilation”
Those droplets generally fall to the floor within six feet, where they no longer pose a danger of transmission. That’s where the six-foot social distancing guideline comes from. However, the CDC notes, smaller particles can linger in the air and cause infection—what is referred to as airborne transmission.
“There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away,” the agency says. “These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.”
Even so, the agency notes that close contact is a much more common mode of transmission: “Available data indicate that it is much more common for the virus that causes COVID-19 to spread through close contact with a person who has COVID-19 than through airborne transmission.”
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What is “close contact,” exactly?
At this point, it’s practically gospel that you should maintain a safe social distance of six feet from people who aren’t in your household. But last fall, the CDC expanded on that guideline.
Before last October, the CDC defined a “close contact” as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of someone with COVID-19. The agency’s new guidance changed that definition to someone who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 or more cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period, starting from two days before the onset of their illness or a positive test result.
The change was inspired by a report published in the journal MMWR of a 20-year-old Vermont prison employee who contracted coronavirus after having 22 brief interactions during an eight-hour shift with six people who tested positive for COVID-19 the following day.
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How to survive this pandemic
As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.