You Can Catch the Delta Variant Outdoors If You Do This One Thing, Experts Warn

Two recent cases saw outbreaks take place at outdoor events.

The rise of the Delta variant in the U.S. has led to a major surge in COVID cases, forcing many areas to revert to some familiar protective measures such as wearing a mask in indoor public places. And while such precautions are still effective, the highly contagious nature of the strain means that you can even catch the Delta variant outdoors if you partake in certain activities, some experts say.

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Two recent studies have found that outdoor transmission of COVID could be more likely as the Delta variant continues to spread through the population. The first paper, which is still awaiting peer review, outlines a wedding in Texas in April. Even though the wedding was held outdoors under an open-air tent, an outbreak of the virus led to six fully vaccinated people becoming infected and one subsequently dying, Salon reports.

The authors point out two guests who had tested negative for the variant before traveling from India, but likely infected the other guests, who all later tested positive for the variant. They wrote: "With no histories of vaccine breakthrough, this suggests Delta variant may possess immune evasion in patients that received the Pfizer [vaccine], Moderna mRNA [vaccine], and [the] Covaxin [vaccine]."

The second case in question involves the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest, an outdoor concert held on July 10 in Oregon that has so far had 64 COVID infections connected to it. While it's unclear how many of those who contracted the virus were vaccinated, state health officials launched an investigation into the event, saying in a press statement: "This outbreak is the first one of its size and scope to be traced to an outdoor entertainment event since the lifting of statewide COVID-19 prevention measures at the end of June."

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According to an internal presentation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently obtained by The Washington Post, the Delta variant is far more contagious than previous strains—more so than other viruses such as ebola or the common cold and akin to chickenpox—and cites research that even vaccinated people can spread the virus. But while many health officials have publicly encouraged the return of face masks indoors for all people regardless of vaccination status, the new debate of whether or not large outdoor events pose a threat is generating new responses from some experts.

"What we're learning about this particular variant is that the viral loads are higher initially, so the time of exposure is shorter," Mercedes Carnethon, vice-chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told CNBC Make It.

Others point out that despite how contagious the variant is, not all outdoor events are equally risky. "The more crowded the venue, the more likely they'll happen," Jorge Parada, MD, medical director of Loyola Medicine's Infection Control Program, told CNBC Make It.

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Still, others warn that a combination of factors could create conditions that can spread the variant, even outdoors. "There's a limit to how much the air currents can dilute and disperse virus, and so if you have a crowded outdoor environment, you may circumvent that beneficial dilution effect," Charles Haas, PhD, a professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Wear a mask, and stay away if you can from shouting, singing, and cheering," he added. But Haas still suggests getting your shots as the best form of protection overall, saying: "If you're vaccinated, the risk and the consequences are expected to be quite low in any event."

If you plan on attending an outdoor event, the CDC recommends wearing a mask outdoors whenever you can't be six feet away from someone you don't live with. And according to Erin Bromage, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, be sure to take precautions in any especially crowded or indoor areas of arenas or stadiums, especially in lines for restrooms or concessions. "I would mask up going into those spaces," he told Boston CBS affiliate WBZ-TV.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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