Is Six Feet Enough Distance to Protect from Coronavirus Transmission?

According to a story from People’s Pharmacy, a dizzying array of advice related to minimizing spread or coronavirus/COVID-19 has barraged our senses over the last few weeks as the number of cases continues to climb exponentially. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and probably your great aunt Bethel on Facebook have all had an opportunity to weigh in on what to do avoid getting infected.

Six Feet Apart?

One common recommendation is to maintain “social distancing,” a term that most of us are probably already tired of hearing even though the pandemic has yet to reach its peak. Social distancing is recommended as maintaining a distance of at least six feet between you and others. But is this enough? Unfortunately, a study from the University of Nebraska suggests that it may not be.

Viral Shedding

This study determined that there was a lot of “viral shedding” from COVID-19 patients, suggesting that the virus can be transmitted through more than just the water droplets released in coughs or sneezes. In fact, the researchers found that patients were releasing viral particles when they breathe, speak, use the bathroom, or handle objects. Data from a total of 13 patients was included in the study. These patients were under isolated quarantine in the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit. The patients’ rooms were outfitted with their own bathrooms and were also negative pressure equipped, meaning that air inside the rooms was not supposed to be able to escape.

Coronavirus: The Possibility of Aerosol Transmission

Scientists took samples from a variety of spaces around the room, such as the air itself, common room surfaces, toilets, personal items, ventilation screens, the floors outside of the rooms, and the hall of the containment unit. During sampling, the scientists maintained six feet of distance between themselves and the patients at all times. The vast majority of objects in the rooms, include 75 percent of personal items and 80 percent of other equipment (computers, phones, medical devices) tested positive for viral RNA particles. The most worrying finding was that viral particles were also found in ventilation grates and in the air in the hallways.

Most hospitals have a very small number of negative pressure rooms (which are intended to prevent any infectious agents from leaving the room), but this study demonstrates that coronavirus particles are capable of escaping. It also suggests that the virus can spread in aerosol form, allowing it to hang in the air for long periods of time. Simply talking or breathing could be enough to release viral particles.

Some public health scientists have been dismissive of results such as those found in this study, with some saying that these particles may not be contagious, or that the study failed to duplicate real-world conditions.

At this juncture it can be overwhelming to read about another story that seems to call into question the most widely held advice and makes the virus seem more contagious than it actually might be. Unfortunately, there is a lot that we still don’t know about coronavirus/COVID-19.


All of this uncertainty highlights the importance of following shelter-in-place recommendations as much as possible. Staying home and keeping your distance from others as much as possible is the best thing you can do to slow the spread.

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