Airborne particle experts explain how to stay safe from the new highly contagious coronavirus virus


Suresh Dhaniyala, Bayard D. Clarkson Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, Clarkson University and Byron Arath, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Clarkson University

A rapidly spreading variant of coronovirus, which causes Corvied-19, has been found in at least 10 states, including Oregon, and people are wondering: How do I protect myself now?

We noticed that the new version, known as B.1.1.7, could quickly spread through southeastern England in December, triggering a case number spike and strict lockdown measures.

The new variant is estimated to be 50% more easily transmitted than the common variant, although it affects people’s health in the same way. Infection is thought to increase as a result of a change in the spike protein of the virus, allowing the virus to easily enter cells. These studies on the new and first editions were released prior to peer review to quickly share their findings.

Additionally, there is some evidence that viral load may be higher in patients infected with the new B.1.1.7 version. This means that they can flush out more virus-containing particles when they breathe, talk or sneeze.

As professors studying fluid dynamics and aerosols, we investigate how airborne particles carrying the virus spread. There is still much that scientists and doctors do not know about coronovirus and its mutation, but there are some clear strategies that people can use to protect themselves.

Airborne particles are still the biggest problem

The SARS-CoV-2 variant is believed to circulate primarily through air rather than surfaces.

When someone with coronovirus coughs, talks, sings or just breathes in their respiratory tract, infectious respiratory droplets can be ejected into the air. These small droplets are mainly in the range of 1–100 micrometers. For comparison, a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter.

Large drops quickly fall to the ground, rarely traveling more than 6 feet away from the source. The biggest problems for disease transmission are the smallest droplets – which are less than 10 micrometers in diameter – that can remain suspended in the air as aerosols for hours at a time.

How effective are different types of masks? UNSW / Thorax.

Due to possibly having more viruses in people’s bodies and viruses becoming more contagious, all should take extra care and caution. Wearing face masks and social distances are essential.

Spaces and activities that were previously considered “safe”, such as some indoor work environments, as they spread, may present an elevated infection risk.

The concentration of aerosol particles is usually highest next to the person leaving the particles and decreases with distance from the source. However, in indoor environments, aerosol concentration levels can build up quickly, in a similar way as cigarette smoke accumulates within enclosed locations. This is particularly problematic in spaces that have poor ventilation.

With the new version, aerosol concentration levels that previously were not a risk may now cause infection.

What can you do to be safe?

1) Pay attention to the type of face mask you use, and how it fits.

Most off-the-shelf face coverings are not 100% effective in preventing drop-off emissions. With the new version more easily and potentially infectious spreading in lower concentrations, it is important to select coverings with the materials that are most effective in preventing droplet spread.

When available, the N95 and surgical masks consistently perform best. Otherwise, it is better to cover the face using multiple layers of material. Ideally, the material should be a tight weave. High thread count cotton sheets are an example. Proper fit is also important, as gaps around the nose and mouth can reduce effectiveness by up to 50%.

2) Follow social removal guidelines.

Although current social distance guidelines are not perfect – 6 feet is not always enough – they provide a useful starting point. Because the level and infectiousness of aerosol concentrations are highest in the immediate enclosure of anyone with the virus, increasing physical disturbances may help reduce the risk. Remember that people are contagious before they start showing symptoms, and many of them never show symptoms, so don’t pay attention to seeing symptoms of the disease.

3) When entering an enclosed area think carefully about the environment, both ventilation and how people interact.

Limiting the size of the gatherings helps reduce the possibility of exposure. Controlling the indoor environment in other ways can also be a highly effective strategy to reduce the risk. This includes bringing in fresh air to dilute aerosol concentrations and increasing ventilation rates to filter existing air.

At the individual level, it is helpful to pay attention to the types of interactions. For example, multiple shouts may pose a greater risk than a person speaking. In all cases, it is important to reduce the amount of time spent indoors with others.

The CDC warns that B.1.1.7 could become the flagship SARS-CoV-2 variant in the US by March. Other fast-spreading variants have also been found in Brazil and South Africa. Increasing vigilance and adherence to health guidelines should continue on top priority.

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