Colorado scientists sign letter addressing COVID-19 potential for airborne spread

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BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) – A group of Colorado scientists says it’s making headway helping health organizations and governments around the world recognize that COVID-19 has the potential for airborne spread.

“I think it’s really important to use evidence and scientific research to make decisions in public health, and the evidence is clear that there is airborne transmission,” said Delphine Farmer, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University.

Farmer was one of 10 scientists from Colorado and one of 239 scientists from around the world who signed a public letter appealing to the national and international medical communities to acknowledge the risks.

“Hand washing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people. The problem is especially acute in indoor or enclosed environments, particularly those that are crowded and have inadequate ventilation relative to the number of occupants and extended exposure periods,” the letter said.

Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder also signed the letter.

She said the group of scientists had shared the message with the World Health Organization in the spring, but the organization did not immediately acknowledge all of the airborne risks associated with COVID-19.

Miller said the scientists decided to publish the letter to the whole world when the WHO did not act.

“They are needing to be cautious because they have to tell the whole world what to do, but we felt that…this is so important, and they were just not even responding in a way that was helpful.”

Farmer said she has been frustrated by the response both from governments around the world and from the WHO.

“The resistance to listening to scientists who have dedicated their lives in bodies of scientific literature to understand how disease is transmitted but also how aerosols and air moves both in buildings and outside…it’s frustrating that the governments and the World Health Organization weren’t really listening to scientists.”

This week, the World Health Organization acknowledged in a scientific brief, that “airborne transmission may occur…in indoor crowded poorly ventilated settings.”

Miller said she was brought to tears that the WHO made the statement.

“It just moved me because I felt like we could save lives by recognition of additional measures that our communities can take to keep ourselves safe and to get our kids in schools and open up our communities even more,” said Miller.

“I’m really relieved that the World Health Organization is listening to scientists and experts in the field, so I’m really happy that we’re getting to a point where that’s going to happen,” said Farmer.

Miller said she is an environmental engineer who studies indoor environments and develops engineering control mechanisms to reduce exposures to air pollution and infectious diseases.  She said she analyzed the massive spread of the virus to dozens of people in Washington state, after a choir practice and worked with another CU Boulder professor, Jose-Luis Jimenez, to develop a COVID-19 risk assessment tool.

“If we want to stop the pandemic, we have to stop the superspreading cases,” said Jimenez.  “The majority of the superspreading cases that have been studied by us and by others are most consistent with aerosols.”

Jimenez, a co-signor, said the message in the letter is extremely important.

“You have to avoid or reduce, as much as possible, six things: you don’t want to be indoors especially if there is a lot of people, if it’s crowded, especially in places where there is no ventilation where it takes a long time, where people are not wearing masks, and if people are talking loudly or shouting. Each one of those things increases how much virus is in the air or how much of the virus there may be in the air that you are breathing in,” said Jimenez.

Meanwhile, the FOX31 Problem Solvers asked the scientists whether they would board a plane any time soon.

All three scientists said no.

“There is not enough mask enforcement,” said Miller. 

Farmer said, “Perhaps there is a complicated, nuanced scenario in which there is a life-and-death question for a close family member…but honestly I can envision no scenario where I would get on a plane rather than driving in a car right now.”

Jimenez said he does not plan to fly on a plane until he is vaccinated, unless it is an emergency.

“I am not recommending that the general population doesn’t fly at all (except maybe in outbreak areas),” he said.  “Although it does add some risk, so I would evaluate how important the trip is vs. the added risk.”

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