MIT researchers say 6 feet may not be far enough while social distancing

For the past few weeks, we’ve been redefining our notion of personal space to ensure that we stay a few feet apart for social distancing reasons. Advice varies depending on who you ask, but the prevailing idea is in the vicinity of a couple of meters, the equivalent of around 6.5 feet.

But according to researchers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), we may have been greatly underestimating the distance that coughs and sneezes can travel. Instead of distances of  6.5 feet being sufficient to keep us safe, researchers from the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory (which, frankly, sounds like it’s pretty perfectly placed to answer this question) think that we should possibly be keeping at least 8.2 meters or 27 feet away from one another. That’s because the gaseous clouds which result from sneezes and coughs, potentially containing COVID-19-conveying droplets, can travel that far.

In “Multiphase Turbulent Gas Cloud From a Human Sneeze,” an article published recently in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Insights, the researchers write that: “The rapid spread of COVID-19 highlights the need to better understand the dynamics of respiratory disease transmission by better characterizing transmission routes, the role of patient physiology in shaping them, and best approaches for source control to potentially improve protection of front-line workers and prevent disease from spreading to the most vulnerable members of the population.”

The journal article claims that peak exhalation speeds can hit an astonishing — if terrifying — 33 to 100 feet per second. If the research turns out to be accurate, it could necessitate revising guidelines currently provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), particularly around protective equipment. This would be especially true for frontline healthcare workers, who run the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 far more than the average person.

Nonetheless, there are still other questions to answer. The most significant of these is the distance that coronavirus germs can travel before they are no longer a big threat. There’s still more research to be done on this, joining the countless number of other scientists currently carrying out groundbreaking research right now. But questions like this are absolutely crucial to answer as soon as possible.

For the latest updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak, visit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 page.

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