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Is COVID-19 airborne? Epidemiologists fume as CDC sows more public confusion

New guidance on the coronavirus and airborne transmission was abruptly deleted by the CDC.

Is COVID-19 airborne? Epidemiologists fume as CDC sows more public confusion
[Photo: rawpixel]

There are still plenty of unknowns when it comes to the coronavirus, including an ever-growing list of symptoms (COVID toe and pink eye, anyone?) and whether or not you can be or become immune. Now you can count the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among the agents of confusion, as it has abruptly removed previously published guidance about how the virus spreads through the air.

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The federal organization, which is aimed at protecting the health security of the U.S. population, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC has provided a hub for all things regarding COVID-19. This past Friday, it posted that COVID-19 spread: “through respiratory droplets or small particles, such as those in aerosols, produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks or breathes” and when “inhaled into the nose, mouth, airways, and lungs. This is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes). “In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”

However, this information has since been taken down, according to a statement from the agency, as it was a “draft of proposed changes posted in error.”

So, for right now, we’re back to the vaguer wording of the agency’s previous guidance, in which it said, “The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.”

Some epidemiologists and various health experts took to Twitter to voice concerns about the reversal, particularly at a time when elected officials are politicizing critical information about the virus.

“Wait, WHAT?” tweeted infectious disease expert Beth S. Linas. “It wasn’t error- it is politics at the agency, again. How can anyone trust this #publichealth agency after repeated missteps?”

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Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding offered screenshots of the deleted guidance and went on a multi-tweet rant against the agency. Among them, “[the] CDC, the once venerable agency respected around the world . . . now decimated to be a walking zombie Man zombie of [its] former self. So utterly terrible and terrifying.”

Dr. Suzana Mackowski (not an epidemiologist) suggested the creation of a whole new agency not under federal jurisdiction.

One scientist who goes by the handle @milieumonde perhaps best summed up this latest debacle in terms that could easily define the entire pandemic: “As an epidemiologist, this whole thing just breaks my heart.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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