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Is COVID-19 airborne? Experts say term is incorrect for describing transmission

Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at LifeLabs after being logged upon receipt at the company's lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Prince Edward Island is reporting three new cases of COVID-19, including one person who worked at a Charlottetown seniors' home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

There’s debate over just how COVID-19 is spreading after a group of 239 scientists and physicians urged the World Health Organization to recognize the potential for airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus.

But some Canadian infectious disease experts say not to get hung up on the term “airborne,” and that the safety precautions we’re already taking to slow the spread of the virus are working.

Epidemiologist Colin Furness at the University of Toronto says to the general public the word airborne can be pretty confusing because it suggests that COVID is gonna come through the keyhole and get you in your sleep — and he says it isn’t.

He says no one is suggesting COVID behaves anything like measles.

In an open letter to the W-H-O published Monday, scientists across 32 countries called for it to revise its safety recommendations to mitigate possible spread of COVID-19 through aerosols — tiny, light particles expelled when people cough, sneeze or breathe that stay suspended in the air for longer periods of time.

Furness says people release particles of all sizes when they breathe, and the novel coronavirus can be found in smaller droplets but it doesn’t mean they are effective in transmitting the virus.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B-C’s provincial health officer, praised the W-H-O for “doing an amazing job trying to keep up with what’s going on,” and said she thought the scientists’ letter was “trying to foment a bit of controversy.”

Henry added that while COVID does seem to be released in small droplets as well as large droplets, we don’t know how potent those smaller particles are.

And Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, thinks we would have seen huge rates of transmission if COVID-19 was a predominantly aerosol virus.

He stresses we would have not been able to control it as well as we did.