Two common mistakes about covid

9 April 2021 by Jennifer

I’m still following the covid science, and keeping an eye on what precautions people are typically taking. Here are two areas where I feel the misunderstandings are both important and, unfortunately, still common.

Mistake: the only droplets that matter come out of your mouth and straight to somebody else. Reality: The virus floats in the air after you leave the room. Mistake: it doesn't matter if young people catch the virus. Reality: the virus can have lasting effects on young people.

The virus floats in the air

Common mistake 1:  “The only droplets that matter come out of your mouth and straight across to somebody else.”

I can’t really blame any ordinary person for having this wrong idea, because for ages, this was the impression given by all the government information, and the World Health Organisation too.

In this mistaken model, people imagine that all the breath-droplets which might have virus in them are coming out of your mouth ahead of you, spreading out to the front like spit, then falling quickly to the ground.

Logically, that would mean you’d only need to take precautions while you’re actually face to face with someone. It would mean that staying 2 metres apart was enough, because the droplets would fall to the ground in between the spaced-out people. It would mean that all risky droplets were caught by any fabric or plastic in front of your face – so it wouldn’t matter if masks leak at the sides, or a visor is open at its lower edge. It would mean that before other people arrive in a room, it wouldn’t matter whether you were wearing a mask or not, as long as you masked up when the others arrived.

In reality, smaller droplets stay floating in the air for hours, and build up indoors similar to smoke.  Like smoke, the floating particles can go round the edges of masks, and spread out across a room. If you breathed in air which someone with covid breathed out a little while ago, you’d be breathing in germs from them.

Virus floating in the air explains why outdoors has been so much safer than indoors. It’s the same as how smoke will drift away outdoors, whereas indoors in a room, it would tend to build up.

Cartoon. Frame 1: Stick figure person in a room. Dots in the air represent bits of covid virus. Frame 2: Same person, more dots. Frame 3: "Wait a second, I'll put my mask on and then open the door". Frame 4: A second person is joining the first person in the room, the air now very full of dots.

(Apologies for lack of credit to the cartoonist! I did see the website where that cartoon came from originally, and now I can’t find it. I got it from here.)

This is why the slogan “Hands. Face. Space.” recently became “Hands. Face. Space. Fresh Air.”

Mind you, if you went by importance, it would make more sense as “Fresh Air. Face. Space. Hands.” Still no definite proof you can catch covid off surfaces at all – that may have been a red herring.

More explanation

It’s not that the virus would last forever in the air. It deteriorates naturally over some hours.

And it’s not that just 1 little virus particle by itself would be likely to give you covid. The 2 metres distance thing does help, because it means you’re getting less of the other person’s breathed-out air.

This video explains:

(the soundtrack is just music, all the info pops up on screen)

Here’s an article which explains how to think through the ventilation of rooms: Avoiding coronavirus infection in indoor spaces: don’t breathe other people’s air

Here’s an earlier article by me, with a lot of practical explanations and references:
Practical points about covid which maybe not everyone knows yet

Young people can have lasting damage

Common mistake 2:  “It doesn’t really matter if young people catch covid – because it’s so unlikely they’ll die of it, and the older people they might give it to are getting vaccinated now”.

In reality, a seemingly mild case of covid can have long-lasting effects to young people, e.g. on their hearts or lungs, or giving them long-lasting fatigue.

One Teenager’s Story, from the American Lung Association
What does COVID-19 look like in a three year old?

This case report summarises the experiences of five children, age range 9 to 15, who were still ill after 6 months. Four of them were seemingly perfectly healthy before catching covid (the fifth had asthma).

The most common symptoms 2 months after the onset of COVID‐19 were fatigue, dyspnoea [breathlessness] and heart palpitations or chest pain. These were seen in all five of the children. In addition, four of the five children complained of headaches, difficulties concentrating, muscle weakness, dizziness and a sore throat. …

Some of the children had improved after experiencing symptoms for 6–8 months, but all of them still suffered from fatigue and none of them had been able to return to school full time. Four reported daily problems of some kind while a fifth was reported to have ‘good and bad days’.

The UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) did some research recently, looking at kids who at some point had tested positive for covid.

It’s important to note that the recent ONS research won’t count every single child who had the virus, because some won’t have been tested. (That’s part of why it’s difficult to get a true picture of how many kids shrug off covid versus how many will stay ill a long time.)

Of the ones who had tested positive, more than 1 in 10 still had at least one symptom five weeks later.
Update on long COVID prevalence estimate, ONS, 1 February 2021 (PDF)

Many of the “Long Covid Kids” do fully recover eventually or at least improve, but even five weeks is a pretty long time to be ill when you’re young! let alone six months, or a year, or not even knowing how long it’ll go on.

Let’s keep children in mind, and not just brush away their risks with “they probably won’t die”.