Vapor clouds released into the air when people sneeze and cough, which could carry novel coronavirus, could travel far more than six feet, according to newly published research and interviews with experts.
"Sneezes, emitted with the highest momentum, can reach up to 26 feet. Coughs can reach up to 19 feet," said professor Lydia Bourouiba of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bourouiba's latest research, which used high-speed cameras to watch the movement of saliva droplets, was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Her work suggests that the guideline of keeping six feet of social distance -- recommended by the Los Angeles City and County and the Centers for Disease Control -- might not be enough to protect you from getting infected with the coronavirus in some settings.
Bourouiba said that the six feet rule of social distancing is based on outdated research from the 1930s. Her current research shows that sneezes can release clouds of virus particles that can spread up to many times that distance in the form of a cloud of particles.
“What we have seen is that the exhalations are not droplets that are isolated that come out, but a gaseous cloud,” Bourbouiba said.
Of greatest concern to Bourouiba are healthcare workers, like LA nurse Kelly Watanabe.
"We're kind of taking a risk every day that we live, and as a nurse for 30 years not much scares me. But I am concerned because this virus is a wild card," says Watanabe, whose been working this week in a temporary homeless shelter just a foot or two from her patients.
Dr. Bourouiba's research, as well as research from the University of Nebraska, shows that coronavirus aerosol particles have lodged themselves on hospital surfaces such as air vents. She says healthcare settings need "the highest grade respirators and N-95s for the healthcare workers."
Outside of those settings, her work suggests that we all might want to aim for more than six feet of social distancing when possible.
The head of the LA County Department of Public Health echoed that advice in response to a question by the NBCLA I-Team.
“Our guidance says stay as far apart as possible,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer said. “The minimum distance should be six feet.”