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Is two metres social distancing really enough?

The most effective way to avoid coronavirus transmission is to stay away, but that’s not really practical in modern society. According to World Health Organization (WHO) advice (as reported in The Lancet), social distancing (sometimes, and more accurately, called physical distancing’) is the next most important thing a person can practice to avoid coronavirus. This is followed by regular hand washing – using hot water and soap or an alcohol based hand sanitizer – and lastly by wearing a face mask.

Social distancing is about observing a set distance apart from another person and avoiding all forms of physical contact such as hugs and handshakes. The general advice is that 2 meters (or 6 feet) guidance works, this is the medical consensus (as Digital Journal reported earlier).

This is because two meters is generally is outside of the range of droplet projection.

In terms of the effectiveness of the distance, at one metre, the chance of becoming infected by someone with COVID-19 is 13 percent; whereas, at two metres, this drops to 3 percent.

While social distancing works, not everyone in society is predisposed to practice it. With this, there are some demographic variations, with social distancing more likely to be followed by seniors compared with younger people, as a consumer survey conducted by Bospar indicates.

But is two metres enough? A new study titled “Viable SARS-CoV-2 in the air of a hospital room with COVID-19 patients“ suggests that a safe distance might need to be 5 metres. This hospital-based study looks for viable virus particles. By sequencing the genome of the virus University of Florida researchers found and showed that it came from that patient and not some other source. The patient was identified as having active respiratory infection with a nasopharyngeal swab positive for the coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2.

What is most of interest is that the virologists detected viable virus up to 4.8 metres away from the patient. This is over twice the recommended 2 metres (6 foot) spacing recommended by most governments. The genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 strain isolated from the material collected at this distance was identical to that isolated from the nasal swab from the patient with an active infection. This finding also adds weight to the aerosol transmission route (and not just a cough or a sneeze), which currently divides scientific opinion.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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