by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
As we flood back out into the world after Memorial Day of 2020 to remember our fallen soldiers, let’s remember the fallen in this viral war we are fighting today. If you plan to head out to the beaches, locker rooms, barbeques, churches, or synagogues, first remember to honor the lessons taught to us by 100,000 Americans who have already died. They are telling us that we cannot wash away this modern plague. We can not pray it away or wish it away. Until we control the virus through testing, isolating, and contact tracing, or through vaccinations, we are on our own. We must protect ourselves and everyone around us from the air we all breathe.
First, we need to understand that a virus is not a bacteria. Bacteria are small cellular critters that live on surfaces and feed off of the residues of film and grime that cover every surface. Bacteria are alive in most meanings of that word, and if you pick up enough of them on your hands, and touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can infect yourself with them.
Viruses like COVID-19 are 100 times smaller. They are mere strands of genetic material with no living activity when not in contact with host cells. They flit about in the air for a time, some of them floating around in moisture droplets released into the air that soon falls to the ground. Other virus strands end up in much smaller aerosol particles that stay suspended in the air for hours until they are sucked into your body when you take in a breath (think MASKS). If you touch a surface recently sprinkled with moisture droplets containing the virus, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without first washing or sanitizing your hands, you may also infect yourself. This is a less common way to catch the virus because these viruses don't stay intact long when the moisture dries up.
When COVID-19 viruses get sucked into your lungs from the air, they land on the surface of your lung cells (or other cells). They trick the cell walls into letting them come inside. This is when they become active. They take control of the cell and force the cells into replicating them wildly until the cell ruptures, releasing an army of clones into the surrounding tissue. Some of these clones attach to surrounding cells and slip inside to begin replicating again. Others are caught up in the air currents and get rushed outside the body in a breath, or a cough, or a sneeze (think MASKS).
The amount of virus in the air (called virus load) depends on several factors, including how sick a person is who is breathing out the virus, how close to a sick person's breath-cloud you are (think SOCIAL DISTANCING), the volume of air per person in a given enclosed space, the air exchange rate in a building or enclosure and the length of time that a sick person is breathing virus into the air in a room, for example (think MASKS).
The manner of a sick person's breath matters also. A cough releases a lot more virus than a breath and a sneeze releases a huge amount of airborne virus that travels at up to 200 miles per hour across a room (think MASKS). But as we learned the hard way, even one pre-symptom person singing in a choir can release copious amounts of virus in the air and infect nearly everyone else at a rehearsal.
Finally, our exposure to COVID-19 virus in the air is dependent on two factors, the virus load in the air we are breathing (again, think MASKS) and the length of time that we are breathing contaminated air. It's a little like radiation exposure in this sense. No amount of exposure is entirely safe, but the amount of radiation and the length of time we are exposed increases our odds of getting sick.
So, as you venture out in the coming days, don’t poke your nose into anyone’s breath-cloud. Keep your social distance. Wear a mask when you are in close contact with others. Always wear a mask in stores, gyms, churches, homes, or any other enclosure where you are not alone, and wash your hands. You don’t need a mask in the open air when nobody is near you, but keep it handy. Your life could depend on it.