Op-Ed: Coronavirus Can Float in the Air As an Aerosol, So Protect Yourself

Dr. Joseph DeJames
Dr. Joseph DeJames

OK, OK … You may think you’re saturated with information about COVID-19 and social distancing, wearing masks, washing your hands and staying inside as much as you can.

One thing we want to add has to do with a way the virus is transmitted that we kind of know but you haven’t heard much about. We’ve heard about respiratory droplets. These are the heavier droplets that seem to fall to the floor about 6 feet when you cough, sneeze, or talk. That’s where they came up with the social distancing thing.

What we are now finding out is that there are smaller droplets that can travel farther distances and remain suspended in the air. These are more concerning when one is in an indoor crowded area. This is basically what occurred to cause an increase in cases in those states that reopened despite not following CDC guidelines. Once again, you don’t see zombie-looking people that are coughing up blood and look like something out of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. (I will admit that there are a few people who look like zombies and, if you don’t know what “Thriller” is, YouTube it.)

Coronavirus seems to also spread when smaller droplets remain floating in the air and can travel longer distances. This occurs mostly indoors. So, even if a restaurant may use responsible social distancing guidelines, this may not be protective enough because these smaller particles can travel further than six feet and can remain in the air where you can walk into them and breathe them in.

Last week, more than 200 scientists penned an open letter to the World Health Organization urging the world’s leading public health organization to change its advice on these smaller airborne particles. The scientists say that microdroplets pose a risk beyond six feet since they can linger in the air for an unknown amount of time, which makes current social distancing guidelines inadequate.

Microdroplets were first investigated on cruise ships where some passengers were infected and spread the virus to people they were not in contact with. Remember, spread can also occur by touching surfaces that have virus on them. However, I can cough in a closed area and cause viruses to float in the air. You may not be near me but can walk through my personalized cloud of virus and breathe some in.

That’s why healthcare workers wear added levels of protection to try to avoid breathing in virus particles. Face shields, N95 masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns are used for this purpose.

Remember, masks helps decrease the chance of the wearer spreading the virus. There are masks with valves on them. The valves allow virus to escape during exhalation so do not rely on them to protect others. Some valves have a filter in them and provide better protection.

Since we live in the land where pirates roamed and piracy is in our DNA, a simple trick is to attach an N95 mask (that you pirated, of course) to a surgical mask or to the inside of your cloth mask. Staples do well for this purpose. I’ve sandwiched an N95 between 2 surgical masks. This allows for preserving the N95 should the surgical masks become soiled or plastered with boogers. Simply remove the staples and re-use the protected N95. The N95 will help protect you from catching the virus, not just from transmitting it.

Disclaimer: In a medical setting, N95 masks are ‘fit-tested’. This ensures an effective fit on the wearer for the purpose of protecting them from breathing in viruses. So this pirated, bootleg, N95-incorporating hybrid contraption should not make you feel that you have a healthcare degree and think you are now immune. All I’m saying is that it should work better than a bandana.

Disclaimer 2: Any mask, even an old deep-sea diver brass helmet, will not work if you remove it to talk and then replace it. It actually is the exact opposite of what you should do.

Disclaimer 3: In the history of piracy, it kind of depends on what side you were on. For example, the Spanish considered Francis Drake to be a diabolical pirate. In England, he was Sir Francis Drake.

Joseph DeJames MD, MA, MBA, FAAFP