They say hindsight is 2020. But what’s been happening with the U.S. Covid-19 response in 2022 seems to be showing a lack of foresight. Wasn’t it 2020 when scientific studies showed that the Covid-19 coronavirus can spread beyond six feet via small respiratory droplets and that wearing face masks in turn may decrease transmission of the virus? So why then has #COVIDIsAirborne again been trending on Twitter over the past week? That’s because folks on Twitter have been wondering why face mask use and air purification have been noticeably absent from the Biden Administration’s messaging about Covid-19 precautions recently.
For example, back in mid-September, U.S. President Joe Biden had claimed that “the pandemic is over,” adding “If you notice no one is wearing masks.” As I covered back then for Forbes, that claim completely flew in the face of science because no real scientific organization had declared the pandemic over. Then there was the October 21 tweet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD , MPH, about precautions against respiratory viruses such as the flu virus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the Covid-19 coronavirus that didn’t seem “air” apparent enough to a number of folks on Twitter:
As you can see, Lucky Tran, PhD, an organizer for the March for Science and a science communicator at Columbia University, pointed out that Walensky’s tweet didn’t even mention two key precautions against airborne viruses: face mask use and air ventilation/filtration. While getting an updated Covid-19 vaccine will help decrease your risk of more severe Covid-19 outcomes, it’s not going to prevent the virus from entering your nose or mouth. The only way the Covid-19 vaccine could possibly block the virus from entering your nose is if you were to shove multiple vaccine syringes up your nostrils, which you shouldn’t do for both safety and aesthetic reasons.
Similarly, practicing good hand hygiene is important as all three viruses can be transmitted via contaminated hands. But clean hands is not going to help prevent an airborne virus from entering your nose or mouth either. That’s unless you are constantly completely covering your nose and mouth with your hands at all times, which you also shouldn’t do because your hands are not permeable and being able to breathe is kind of important. Plus, you can’t doomscroll social media or take selfies if you are constantly using your hands to cover your nose and mouth.
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So what about using your hands to wave away the virus? Well, on Twitter, @tmcdonnell4 asked “how many hours should I wash my hands to remove respiratory viruses from the air”:
The answer is no amount of hours will help you if your goal is to scoop the viruses out of the air with your hands. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is not like a giant cat hair floating in the air. No amount of hand scooping or fanning or jazz hands is going to be enough to wave the virus completely away from you.
So has the SARS-CoV-2 somehow lost its ability to go airborne? Did it drink the opposite of Red Bull? No. It doesn’t seem that way. It would be very, very, very unusual for a virus to lose such an ability. On October 26, Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, the Biden Administration’s White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, did say, “Covid, which is purely airborne,” during a White House press conference, as Jose-Luis Jimenez, PhD, a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Colorado tweeted:
Now, calling the Covid-19 coronavirus “purely airborne” is not really correct either. Studies have shown that the virus can persist on different surfaces for a while as well, as I have covered for Forbes. And you probably wouldn’t ask someone with Covid-19, “hey do you have a trumpet or Hannibal Lechter facemask that you just used that I could lick?” Calling the SARS-CoV-2 purely airborne would be like calling a star basketball player purely a dribbler.
Regardless, Jha did seem to acknowledge the airborne nature of the SARS-CoV-2, which brings us back to original question: why hasn’t the Biden Administration been pushing face mask use and air filtration/purification more? Back on October 22, Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief of the COVID Risk Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, tweeted out “I think we need to get #BringBackMasks and #COVIDIsAirborne trending again. Because #CovidIsNotOver,” as you can see here:
Both hashtags have indeed trended over the past week. Author Dana Parish added #COVIDIsAirborne to her story about her trip with her dog to the vet, assuming that the emoji that she used is of a dog and not a human with exceptionally long ears:
Joy Henningsen, MD, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, used #COVIDIsAirborne to point out that others in the U.S. beyond the Biden Administration seem to avoiding the “mask” word when it would seem to be appropriate to use:
And @DrFiliatrault employed the hashtag to pass along a video from RIKEN in Japan that visualized how the SARS-CoV-2 can go “airborne free” without masks:
Meanwhile, family doctor Nili Kaplan-Myrth, MD, PhD, tweeted with #BringBackMasks to urge political leaders to push for face mask wearing to do something to mitigate yet another Covid-19 surge in the coming months:
And Mandate Masks NY , an advocacy effort to “mandate masks in public places and schools when needed and provide free masks,” threw in the hashtag while tweet forwarding a photo of a sign that reminded people that having gotten vaccinated against Covid-19 alone won’t offer you the same type of protection that wearing a face mask will:
Remember that each Covid-19 precaution is like a slice of Swiss Cheese. Each has its own holes. It’s generally a good idea to cover your holes by layering on different Covid-19 precautions as you might layer on Swiss Cheese.
Therefore, it is quite puzzling why the Biden Administration hasn’t been mentioning face mask wearing and air filtration/purification more, especially since these would help against Covid-19, RSV, and influenza. Rick Bright, PhD, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), tweeted out “Doesn’t it sound like wearing masks, improving ventilation and air filtration would help to address this #CovidIsAirborne virus and be more effective than hand washing,” while using the #CovidIsAirborne hashtag as well:
A response to Bright’s tweet above included a video from 2020 of Walensky saying that transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 consists of “a lot of aerosol.” That video came after the Trump Administration had spent the earlier half of 2020 not fully realizing or acknowledging how much of an aerosol component Covid-19 coronavirus transmission has. That resulted in delays in putting face mask wearing and air filtration/purification in place that year. Will not fully acknowledging this airborne component once again in 2022 be a 2020 too situation all over again?