In a joint study by the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, and others, researchers found genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19 in air samples from both in and outside of confirmed coronavirus patients’ rooms. The findings offer “limited evidence that some potential for airborne transmission exists," researchers said, though they warned that the findings do not confirm airborne spread.
Researchers, looking to better understand viral shedding of the novel virus, took air and surface samples from 11 patients’ rooms during the initial isolation of 13 people who tested positive for COVID-19. The researchers found virus genetic material on commonly used items, such as toilets, but also in air samples, thus indicating that “SARS-CoV-2 is widely disseminated in the environment.” (SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes COVID-19.)
Not only was the virus detected within COVID-19 patients’ rooms, “air samplers from hallways outside of rooms where [the] staff was moving in and out of doors were also positive,” they wrote.
“These findings indicate that disease might be spread through both direct (droplet and person-to-person) as well as indirect contact (contaminated objects and airborne transmission) and suggests airborne isolation precautions could be appropriate,” they concluded, noting that the findings also suggest that COVID-19 patients, even those who are only mildly ill, “may create aerosols of virus and contaminate surfaces that may pose a risk for transmission.”
The study’s authors also said that the results underscore the importance of personal protective equipment or PPEs, and the use of negative air pressure rooms for confirmed COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized.
"Our team was already taking airborne precautions with the initial patients we cared for," said James Lawler, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC, in a statement. "This report reinforces our suspicions. It’s why we have maintained COVID patients in rooms equipped with negative airflow and will continue to make efforts to do so — even with an increase in the number of patients. Our health care workers providing care will be equipped with the appropriate level of personal protective equipment. Obviously, more research is required to be able to characterize environmental risk."
Scientists are still working to understand how the novel virus transmits, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it mainly spreads via person-to-person, such as when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Their respiratory droplets could then land in the noses and mouths of other people close by (hence why officials are urging people to stay at least six feet away from one another when in public). Touching a contaminated object — recent studies have found the virus can live on surfaces between hours and days — and then touching your eyes, nose or face with dirty hands is also a possibility.
But a recent study also found the virus may transmit through the digestive tract, specifically the fecal-oral route. Scientists from the Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University and the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Science recently discovered virus genetic material in stool samples and rectal swabs from some patients, Chinese state media reported in February.
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