Does the coronavirus ‘linger in the air’ long enough be dangerous? Why we can’t answer that question.

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Credit: Kin Cheung/Associated Press

Scientists are debating a key aspect of the coronavirus that causes covid-19: whether the virus lingers in the air for long enough and in a great enough quantity for airborne transmission to be a common source of infection. It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s actually posing quite a challenge to researchers.

The new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, infects the body primarily through a person’s respiratory tract.

Every exhalation contains large and small particles of moisture. Larger particles, or droplets, can only travel a short distance before they hit the ground. Smaller particles, however, can float in the air for much longer before they fall or dry up. …

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We know for sure that SARS-CoV-2 spreads easily through larger droplets—that’s why we’ve spent the last three months desperately trying to stay at least six feet apart from one another. Past that point, experts generally agree that the risk of catching the virus through droplets is significantly much lower. But if the coronavirus can be routinely transmitted through aerosols, then these precautions are far too meager.

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While knowing that the virus isn’t airborne wouldn’t change the need for physical distancing, it might provide some added margin for error as we start to reopen parts of society.

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