You Can Catch COVID Faster Than You Think, Virologist Warns

The virus can spread in under 15 minutes, contrary to what you may have been led to believe.

Throughout the pandemic, many people have clung to the idea that you can't get COVID if you keep sufficient distance from others and don't linger too long in their company. While this might be comforting, it's not necessarily true. Studies have shown that you can get infected with COVID even within the parameters of alleged safety. On Feb. 3, Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist affiliated with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, wrote a lengthy Twitter thread that explained just how easily you can get COVID and how quickly it can spread. Keep reading for Rasmussen's insight on coronavirus contagion, and for ways to keep yourself healthy, Dr. Fauci Just Said This Is the Only Safe Way to Eat at a Restaurant.

You can get COVID in under 15 minutes.

group of 30-something friends gathering with their masks down

Rasmussen's discussion about COVID spread was sparked by two articles. One report from The Globe and Mail on Feb. 1 documented the rapid spread of the virus at long-term care facilities and cases where infected people claimed they were only in a store for a few minutes. Another Wall Street Journal article cited data from the National Football League (NFL) that showed that transmission of the virus could occur in under 15 minutes and beyond six feet of distance.

As an expert, Rasmussen felt this information was already apparent, but clarified it for her followers. She explained that the transmission of COVID is completely situational, and under the right circumstances, you could get infected much faster than many have been led to believe."Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have clung to the notion that close contact is defined by less than six feet of distance and 15 minutes of exposure time as though it is a hard and fast rule. But with virus transmission, boundaries of space and time are not set in stone," Rasmussen wrote. "Viruses do not need 15 minutes to 'warm-up,' and they aren't magically rendered non-infectious over the threshold of six feet." And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.

The U.K. strain spreads more easily, but experts are not sure how.

young couple talking with mask pulled down

Many of the new strains of COVID that have developed, including those that were first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil, spread easier—but Rasmussen said this doesn't necessarily mean they spread faster. "With regard to B.1.1.7 [the U.K. strain] being transmitted 'faster,' that's really hard to say. We only know that it's more transmissible, but not the mechanism," she wrote. "In other words, we don't know HOW it is more transmissible."

Although experts are not yet sure why the strain is more infectious, Rasmussen listed a few potential causes. One reason for the increased transmissibility could be that the virus sheds more and for longer—which means people could be exposed to more virus in a shorter period of time. Another possibility is that the virus has more infectivity, so a "lower infectious dose [is] required to establish an infection." Lastly, the virus could be more stable, which would allow it to linger longer in an environment. According to Rasmussen, "Increased transmissibility could be the result [of] any or all of these, but all could explain how people are being infected 'faster.'" However, she notes that it could also simply be situational. And for more on the coronavirus mutations, If You Have These 4 Symptoms, You Might Have the New COVID Strain.

The idea that less than 15 minutes of contact would keep you safe from COVID stemmed from contact tracing.

Two young women sitting in restaurant and surfing the net. All wear face mask below chin.

The conception that you were in the clear if your contact was less than 15 minutes and at a distance of over six feet didn't come from nowhere—it was what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defined as "close contact." Rasmussen said these parameters were developed to help streamline contact tracing. "You need to have a definition of what close contact is in order to do contact tracing," wrote Rasmussen. She explained that counting "any kind of contact, no matter how incidental, would multiply contacts to the point that tracing becomes impossible," which is why it was necessary to quantify contact in these terms.

"So, it's not perfect, but close contact is defined to allow contact tracers to follow up on exposures that are most likely to lead to infection," Rasmussen added. "Defining close contact for this purpose is NOT, however, a hard-line over which transmission cannot occur." And for more on the spread of coronavirus, This Is Where You're Most Likely to Catch COVID, New Study Says.

All viruses can travel this fast.

A young woman in a disposable face mask is checking a shopping list on a smartphone while there is another woman with shopping cart background
ANRproduction / Shutterstock

This isn't a singular phenomenon for COVID. "This is true for all viruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, and not just B.1.1.7 or other variants," Rasmussen wrote. She warned against regarding the six-feet and under 15-minute rules as canon when it comes to any contagion. "We should not regard definitions of contact for tracing to be the definition of exposure risk as we live our lives," she concluded. And for more ways you could be exposing yourself to COVID, If You Wear Your Mask Like This, You're Not Getting "Maximal Protection."

Best Life is constantly monitoring the latest news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed. Here are the answers to your most burning questions, the ways you can stay safe and healthy, the facts you need to know, the risks you should avoid, the myths you need to ignore,and the symptoms to be aware of. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.
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