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The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has reawakened the long-standing debate about the extent to which common respiratory viruses, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), are transmitted via respiratory droplets vs aerosols. Droplets are classically described as larger entities (>5 μm) that rapidly drop to the ground by force of gravity, typically within 3 to 6 feet of the source person. Aerosols are smaller particles (≤5 μm) that rapidly evaporate in the air, leaving behind droplet nuclei that are small enough and light enough to remain suspended in the air for hours (analogous to pollen).
Determining whether droplets or aerosols predominate in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has critical implications. If SARS-CoV-2 is primarily spread by respiratory droplets, wearing a medical mask, face shield, or keeping 6 feet apart from other individuals should be adequate to prevent transmission. If, however, SARS-CoV-2 is carried by aerosols that can remain suspended in the air for prolonged periods, medical masks would be inadequate (because aerosols can both penetrate and circumnavigate masks), face shields would provide only partial protection (because there are open gaps between the shield and the wearer’s face), and 6 feet of separation would not provide protection from aerosols that remain suspended in the air or are carried by currents.
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Klompas M, Baker MA, Rhee C. Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence. JAMA. 2020;324(5):441–442. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12458
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