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El Paso experts say Covid-19 may spread as an airborne aerosol

EL PASO, Texas -- Aerosols, they are everywhere and they may be carrying Covid-19.

Aerosols and droplets passing from one person to the next are believed to be the reason the novel coronavirus is a global pandemic.

"Aerosols are finer, finer airborne particles," El Paso infectious disease specialist Dr. Antonio Ortega said.

"They sat in the air longer and they travel further than six feet. Droplets, they drop fast," he added. "They don't stay in the air long."

Dr. Thomas Gill is an aerosol expert and a UTEP professor of environmental science, engineering and geological sciences, whom ABC-7 reached out to in order to get a better understanding of this microscopic phenomenon.

Gill studies dust aerosols, but says aerosols are the same when it comes to physics, science and how they fly through the air.

"When people breath, talk, sing or exhale they let our much, much smaller aerosols that might be 10 times or 200 times smaller than a grain of sand," Gill said.

Now, think about if that person is infected with Covid-19.

"Anytime you cough or sneeze you can expect a lot of particles to expel," Ortega said. "How much virus particles are in those aerosols or droplet particles are a lot. We can't quantify, but there is enough to cause an infection not with one person, but with a lot of people in that room."

Gill noted that the city of El Paso recently mandated residents to wear face masks in public, and talked about the importance of this.

"Since we have this pandemic, we are concerned about virus particle or particles that have viruses on them flying through the air and how we can filter them out to keep ourselves from breathing them, or filter them from breathing them from getting them to someone else," Gill said.

The aerosol expert said the likelihood of you contracting Covid-19 is a function of five different things.

  • How close you are to an infected person putting out droplets and or aerosols
  • How long you are exposed to the infected person
  • Whether you are covering your mouth and nose
  • How loud that infected person is talking, sneezing or coughing, which causes droplets and aerosols to be expelled with greater force
  • Is there ventilation? The more ventilation, the better aerosols and droplets will break up

Gill used the example of a grocery store.

"They have those big long aisles and those aisles are like canyons," he said. 

"I don't know if you've noticed of those calm winter nights in El Paso the pollution and the fog tend to settle down in the valleys and the aisles in the store," Gills explained.

"The big tall aisles are kind of like those valleys and when the sun rises and the wind starts blowing the pollution disperses up and out of the valley and goes away. The more fresh air going into a store, the higher the ventilation rate the more the breaths and coughs that are trapped into the aisles of the store is going to get stirred up and can move up into the rafters and become more dispersed," he observed.

Cigarette smoke is also an aerosol, according to the expert.

"If someone is smoking and you are close enough to be smelling the smoke from the cigarette, you can probably be inhaling the virus bearing particles they'd be breathing out too," Gill said.

The top advice from the infectious disease expert?"I think it's best to protect yourself and wear a mask," Antonio said.

Article Topic Follows: Health

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