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If that feels “so April 2020” to you, that’s probably because as the months have worn on, scientists have learned more and more about how COVID-19 is spread, and our strategies for keeping the virus at bay have evolved. But with more information, comes more—and more, and more—questions. What’s the latest consensus on COVID-19 transmission? What should we really worry about?

Recent evidence has confirmed that “fomite” transmission—that means picking up SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from a physical object like a carton of milk—is pretty rare. A new paper published by The Lancet just a couple weeks ago confirms that fomite transmission is now considered “low risk.” That doesn’t mean you should stop washing your hands (seriously, keep washing your hands), but it does mean that using pricey bleach wipes on every item you bring into your home is not necessary.

Much of the recent debate has focused on the question of just how “airborne” this virus is. (Raise your hand if “aerosols” no longer sounds like a real word.) An airborne virus sounds scary, but the good news is that COVID-19 isn’t like measles, which you can catch (if you’re not vaccinated) by going into a room where a person with measles was sitting an hour before you even got there. COVID-19 is “airborne” in the sense that it is transmitted through very small particles (larger droplets and those infamous smaller “aerosols”) that are exhaled by a person who has the virus. Most transmission occurs through close, sustained contact with an infected person; this is why so much transmission occurs within families. But we know now that it’s also possible to catch the virus by just sitting in a room—like a restaurant, office, or a movie theater—with an infected person, especially if the space is crowded, has poor ventilation, masks are not in use, and you’re in that confined space for more than a few minutes.

The main thing to keep in mind is that transmission is related to three factors: proximity, time, and air flow. So when we’re managing risk, we need to consider those factors. The best we can do is maintain space between people (social distancing), keep close-up interactions brief, and spend as much time as possible in well-ventilated spaces. Masks, of course, disrupt the exhalation (and, to a certain extent, inhalation as well) of viral particles, so the more people who mask up, indoors and out, the better for everyone.

“A new paper published by The Lancet just a couple weeks ago confirms that fomite transmission is now considered “low risk.” That doesn’t mean you should stop washing your hands (seriously, keep washing your hands), but it does mean that using pricey bleach wipes on every item you bring into your home is not necessary.”

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