The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests.
This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants.
It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech.
Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What is clear, they said, is that people should consider minimizing time indoors with people outside their families. Schools, nursing homes and businesses should consider adding powerful new air filters and ultraviolet lights that can kill airborne viruses.
Here are answers to a few questions raised by the latest research.
What does it mean for a virus to be airborne?
For a virus to be airborne means that it can be carried through the air in a viable form. For most pathogens, this is a yes-no scenario. H.I.V., too delicate to survive outside the body, is not airborne. Measles is airborne, and dangerously so: It can survive in the air for up to two hours.
For the coronavirus, the definition has been more complicated. Experts agree that the virus does not travel long distances or remain viable outdoors. But evidence suggests it can traverse the length of a room and, in one set of experimental conditions, remain viable for perhaps three hours.
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What does airborne transmission mean for reopening schools and colleges?
This is a matter of intense debate. Many schools are poorly ventilated and are too poorly funded to invest in new filtration systems. “There is a huge vulnerability to infection transmission via aerosols in schools,” said Don Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland.
Most children younger than 12 seem to have only mild symptoms, if any, so elementary schools may get by. “So far, we don’t have evidence that elementary schools will be a problem, but the upper grades, I think, would be more likely to be a problem,” Dr. Milton said.
College dorms and classrooms are also cause for concern.
Dr. Milton said the government should think of long-term solutions for these problems. Having public schools closed “clogs up the whole economy, and it’s a major vulnerability,” he said.
“Until we understand how this is part of our national defense, and fund it appropriately, we’re going to remain extremely vulnerable to these kinds of biological threats.”
What are some things I can do to minimize the risks?
Do as much as you can outdoors. Despite the many photos of people at beaches, even a somewhat crowded beach, especially on a breezy day, is likely to be safer than a pub or an indoor restaurant with recycled air.
But even outdoors, wear a mask if you are likely to be close to others for an extended period.
When indoors, one simple thing people can do is to “open their windows and doors whenever possible,” Dr. Marr said. You can also upgrade the filters in your home air-conditioning systems, or adjust the settings to use more outdoor air rather than recirculated air.
Public buildings and businesses may want to invest in air purifiers and ultraviolet lights that can kill the virus. Despite their reputation, elevators may not be a big risk, Dr. Milton said, compared with public bathrooms or offices with stagnant air where you may spend a long time.
If none of those things are possible, try to minimize the time you spend in an indoor space, especially without a mask. The longer you spend inside, the greater the dose of virus you might inhale.