Letter: Smoking and the pandemic have something in common
I’d like to draw what I hope will be some instructive parallels between second-hand smoke and COVID-19.
Do you remember what it was like to step into a bar, restaurant or retail business and instantly know whether there was, or had been, tobacco smoking in that environment? For non-smokers especially, the nose knows.
Second-hand smoke is an aerosol that hangs and drifts in the indoor air for minutes or even hours, depending on ventilation efficiencies and fresh air exchanges. While bothersome to customers, second-hand smoke exposure to workers proved deadly, according to numerous studies. And efforts by restaurant/bar owners to adequately clean out the smoke almost always fell short, despite large investments.
The 1998 national tobacco settlement ultimately led many states and municipalities to ban smoking in public places, and second-hand smoke generally faded away.
Today, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 400,000 Americans in the past year. Much of our prevention efforts have focused on blocking the close transmission of the COVID-19 virus, such as happens when we shake hands or stand too close to an infected person while talking, coughing or sneezing while unmasked.
Research indicates that an infected person can emit large amounts of virus that hitches a ride on respiratory moisture, while talking, laughing, singing, shouting, coughing or sneezing. If everyone present is effectively masked and at least 6 feet apart, the moisture droplets get caught in masks or fall to the floor due to gravity. The result is not much transmission.
Yet an unmasked or poorly-masked infected person can also emit large amounts of virus that may be hitching on tiny droplets or no respiratory droplets at all. This is aerosolized virus, and it can hang in the air and waft about on air currents for hundreds of feet, before either being pulled out of the building, captured by filters or drifting down to the floor. Without frequent floor cleaning, grounded viruses can be scuffed up and back into the air by customers and workers.
I don’t think we’re taking aerosolized virus seriously enough. A shopper or diner might get in and out of an establishment quickly enough that the viral load encountered isn’t enough to trigger infection. Workers, however, have longer-term exposure and get infected.
The aerosolized threat is real. Please take it seriously.
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