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CDC Quietly Acknowledges COVID-19 Mainly Spreads Through Air — Then Deletes It

Scientists have spent months pushing public health organizations to acknowledge the virus isn’t solely transmitted person-to-person. The CDC claimed the transmission update was "posted in error."

People wearing protective masks walk their bicycles past a social distancing sign reading "KEEP THIS FAR APART" at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17, 2020 in New York City. | Getty Images
People wearing protective masks walk their bicycles past a social distancing sign reading "KEEP THIS FAR APART" at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17, 2020 in New York City. | Getty Images

The CDC on Monday again reversed course on its COVID-19 information, saying that an update posted Friday that said the novel coronavirus spreads most commonly in the air was “posted in error to the agency’s official website.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's update on Friday came without a major press release, but attracted more attention after CNN reported it Sunday. Scientists had formally requested major public health bodies, including the World Health Organization, acknowledge that COVID-19 isn’t solely transmitted person-to-person via large respiratory droplets.

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Then on Monday, the CDC removed the information from its website with a note at the top of the page stating: “A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website. CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”

The now-removed update initially stated that when a person infected with COVID-19 “coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes,” infected particles known as aerosols can be inhaled into another persons’ nose, airways, mouth, or lungs, the CDC said. The agency had said “this is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” 
 
“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the agency’s website read before the information was removed. “In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”

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The update had recommended that people stay at least 6 feet apart rather than “about 6 feet,” adding that “masks should not replace other prevention measures” and that air purifiers could "help reduce airborne germs in indoor spaces.” 

“It’s a major change,” Jose-Luis Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies aerosol spread, told The Washington Post. “This is a good thing, if we can reduce transmission because more people understand how it is spreading and know what to do to stop it.”

In July, the World Health Organization recognized the risk of aerosols after 239 scientists from across the globe published an open letter urging it to acknowledge the airborne transmission of COVID-19. The letter noted that while social distancing and handwashing are appropriate measures for containing the virus, they were also “insufficient.” 

One of the letter’s lead authors, Donald Milton, told CNN that he is “very encouraged to see that the CDC is paying attention and moving with the science. The evidence is accumulating.”

Some health experts are encouraging people to be more conscious of maintaining distance indoors and consider “more tightly fitting masks” and “improving ventilation,” the Washington Post reported

“This is *not* to say that everyone in the community needs to be walking around in N95s— from our current understanding, aerosol spread is most important in crowds [and] closed spaces with poor ventilation,” tweeted Abraar Karan, a doctor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We need to focus communication campaigns on avoiding these scenarios.”