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Scientists now believe COVID-19 is 'aerosolized.' What does that mean?

Growing evidence shows COVID-19 can travel in tiny droplets in the air, making transmission possible through just breathing or talking.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As more cities and counties implement face mask requirements on top of the North Carolina mandate, new research suggests wearing a mask could be more important than washing your hands in the battle against COVID-19. 

There's been a lot of talk lately about scientists believing COVID-19 is airborne. What does that mean, and does this new evidence support changing our daily routines to stop the spread of coronavirus? 

Growing evidence shows that coronavirus can travel in tiny droplets in the air, hanging out possibly for hours, infecting people who then breathe in that air. That means COVID-19 is what scientists call aerosolized. Before, it was believed that coronavirus traveled in larger droplets released when people coughed or sneezed. The smaller droplets are produced by just breathing or talking. 

In a letter published this week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, two scientists from Australia and the U.S. wrote that studies have shown “beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in the air.” That means people in certain indoor conditions could be at greater risk of being infected than was previously thought.

So what does this mean for prevention? In a few words, we need more masks and less Lysol wipes. That's because larger droplets fall on surfaces, meaning transmission could happen through contact with a contaminated surface. Now that experts believe the virus is smaller and hanging out in the air, masks take on new importance. 

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The other main takeaway from this new research is the importance of ventilation. Being outdoors is a lot safer than a crowded indoor space. Experts also recommend opening windows or running the air conditioning when possible.