Is 6 feet enough? CDC walks back its walkback on airborne transmission of COVID-19

John Bacon   | USA TODAY Show Caption Hide Caption Why you didn't hear from COVID-19 contact trace

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John Bacon   | USA TODAY
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which quietly changed its guidance on coronavirus transmission through the air Friday, reversed field again Monday.

Sort of.

On Friday, the CDC posted an update on its website saying six feet may not be sufficient to keep people safe and that ventilation was key to easing transmission indoors. That determination could be crucial for schools where desks are now set up six feet apart. Offices, restaurants and even church services also could be affected by the change.

“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the agency said. “In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”

On Monday, the website switched back to the previous information.

"A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website," a note on the CDC website said. "CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted."

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The previous guidance, now back on the site, says the spread is primarily between people who are in close contact with one another – within about 6 feet – through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

Scientists have warned for months that the virus could be spread through tiny aerosols that spread farther and hang in the air longer than previously believed. The World Health Organization, lobbied by hundreds of scientists, made the acknowledgement two months ago.

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The CDC's guidance did not change until Friday but quickly reversed back Monday.

"Inconsistent messaging is always a drawback in public health interventions, including in our response to COVID-19," said Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor who specializes in public health at Butler University's college of Pharmacy and Health Sciences." It can breed suspicion and distrust from the public."

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the retraction was unfortunate because messaging is an important factor in efforts to control the outbreak. But he says that, practically speaking, there is little difference between the two guidances. The one that was retracted was confusing and needed editing, he said.

“There is data now that shows the virus can be spread when people cough or sing from more than six feet apart,” he said. “But is that how they are getting infected mostly? No. The main way is close contact with infected individuals.”

More than 6 millions Americans have been infected by the virus. The U.S. death toll stands on the brink of 200,000.
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