Hope everyone is laying low and staying healthy. Warning: this is a long post that addresses many questions and conversations I have had over the past week on topics that are very important to many right now.
We are all experiencing and adapting to unprecedented times right now. My week was made even crazier by being re-taught the meaning of “out of context”. For those who read it, the LA Times article with subsequent twists made by additional media outlets was a major disappointment — and caused some people extra angst which is not needed right now.
For the record, the story was supposed to focus on the fact that aerosols can go further than 6 ft especially if you are on a crowded beach which was continuing to happen in our area. This realization of aerosol transport came out in several articles over a 2 day period (see bottom of post). The issue is WHO has been basing their 6 ft guidance on research done in the 1930’s before instruments could detect tiny aerosol particles. It has since been shown in the published literature that people can exhale small aerosol particles that do not settle out within 6 ft–they can float around for hours. Note these are emitted into the air without coughing. With coughs, much bigger droplets are expelled that do settle out quickly.
Right now, there are people that are infected and do not have any symptoms. So, if they are surfing or running along the beach, they could be exhaling tiny infectious aerosol particles. Even indoors, when talking or singing, an infected person will be expelling out these tiny particles that float around. This week the National Academy sent a letter to the White House advising them that it is likely this virus is getting into the air in aerosols and thus one should factor this into social distancing considerations. This is the place where masks can help as they have been shown to filter out this and other viruses effectively. So wearing masks should have a large effect as we move forward. I was very relieved to see this added to the guidelines put in place that started last night. If you look at countries that have worn masks when they are sick traditionally (Taiwan, Japan..), their number of cases was much smaller-in other words, their curves were much flatter. Most of their residents wore masks almost immediately. They also instituted other helpful measures very quickly.
So how far a distance is enough when outdoors? The good news is outdoors the air gets diluted quickly. The best analogy is to think of a smoker walking in front of you–if you want to avoid the exhaled smoke plume (virus aerosols will follow the same path), you carve a pretty big path. The same applies here. No one knows the infectious dose for this virus–we will not know it for a while. So, it is best to error on the side of caution — and much better to be safe than sorry. It is important to get out and exercise. I still take walks but I keep my distance as much as possible.
Now, what about the other part of the article where I said I would not go into the ocean if you paid me?
That was totally taken out of context and when I first read the opening lines in the article, I cringed and contacted the writer right away. The way it is written it sounds like this is what I wanted to “yell” at people. No, my concern about cyclists, runners, surfers had to do with the air possibly traveling further than 6 ft. In another part of the conversation, we discussed all of the pollution run-off and sewage that get into the ocean especially after the rains we have had. It is well documented that our oceans become polluted at times–many here in SD are quite polluted now. The point I was trying to make was I would not go in the ocean (here in SD) where it is polluted right now nor would I go to the crowded beaches. As I suspected would happen that quote about not going in the ocean has now been used for many headlines around the world and interpreted to mean I would not go in any ocean right now.
We discussed the research my group is doing on how much human-made pollution that gets into the ocean gets launched into the atmosphere and the potential health effects. I made it clear this is a research project and it will be a long time before we know the answers. I made it very clear that SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected in the ocean or atmosphere by anyone. Much research needs to be done to understand this virus and how/if it travels through the environment. It is also a virus that has a fragile “envelope” that if disrupted by heat, salt, or water would likely kill the virus–that is very good news.
The ocean is loaded with many harmless natural viruses and bacteria that play a vital role in the health of our ecosystem. We are addressing how human pollution is changing this ecosystem. It is a research area we are extremely excited about but it is not one that should ever be used to invoke fear in people especially at this time. Sadly, I never saw this coming. As soon as I saw the article, I called the reporter and pointed out how slanted and out of context it was (especially the beginning which was out of context and alarming)–but it was too late. She said she was receiving many positive comments and could not change it.
In the end, a number of surfers took offense to this article suggesting they be cautious in polluted water. I received some really nasty notes. The positive side is that a number of top surfers reached out and asked me for clarification — I explained what happened. They immediately realized that I was only trying to help people during this pandemic and were extremely supportive and apologized for the more negative surfers. I will be doing a webinar for some of the organizations soon to discuss our current understanding of the aerosol transport pathway of this virus.
This week, I went through a period where I wondered if I should continue to talk with reporters about this topic. I have done hundreds of interviews over my career and have never had anything like this happen before. I feel it is important for scientists to help the public understand what is going on-especially during this period of alternative facts. In the end, I decided it is important to continue to talk with a select subset of reporters to help the messages get out there that will save lives. I am doing interviews with known writers, requesting to see the article before it is published (to check for scientific accuracy), and getting agreement on topics in advance. These are things they teach you in any science communication course. I am kicking myself for letting my guard down and talking so openly about a wide range of topics from early research efforts to more well documented literature. It is always better to focus on a key message or two especially during a global pandemic! In the end, we all are human and make mistakes especially under this tremendous unprecedented period of stress.
I am keeping the conversation focused on the most useful messages right now which are: stay home, save lives. Keep your distance. Six feet might not be enough if you are near someone who is infected. Of course, keep exercising and enjoying the outdoors as mental and physical health are so critical especially right now–just do it where there are not a ton of people. And, in the end, if there is a breeze, do what you would do to avoid the directly exhaled smoke.
Stay safe everyone. We will get through this together.
I just heard that the reporter who wrote the article also feels bad now that she has learned that this story has alarmed so many people. She says this was not her intention and she was using language to humanize me and show how much I care about my community. In the end, many have commented that this made me look like a hysterical woman yelling out the window at people to not go in the ocean! This was not the case, I can assure you.
She feels that it was a good story with great public interest, and has received mostly positive feedback. Her goal was to make people think about the important ocean-atmosphere connections and that there are still so many unanswered questions; since there is so much not known, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Lesson here for all is that in the middle of a global pandemic, we are all doing the best we can trying to deliver important messages to help people. Now more than ever, we should all try and give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.
Also, one thing that was mentioned but not cited is the recent article published in Nature (the day before the news article was published) showing this virus does not appear to be infectious in stool. This is good news. I am sure many more studies will be done on this and other aspects of this virus.