Soon after the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, it became clear that some infected individuals were spreading the virus at a greater rate than others. In fact, most people with the virus aren’t responsible for spreading it at all. In the infectious disease world, people who spread the virus like wild-fire are called “superspreaders” and the events in which these transmissions occur are called “superspreading” events.
As the virus has continued to play out over the last few months, several of these types of occurrences have been identified, many occurring within residential care facilities, prisons, meat plants, conferences, religious services, bars or restaurants, or other large gatherings of people. So what exactly is the recipe for a coronavirus “superspreader”? Could you be one? Read on to discover the four factors that may prove yes.
“You can think about throwing a match at kindling,” Ben Althouse, principal research scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Wash, told the New York Times. “You throw one match, it may not light the kindling. You throw another match, it may not light the kindling. But then one match hits in the right spot, and all of a sudden the fire goes up.”
Kristin Nelson, an associate professor at Emory University, and her colleagues published a preprint published last week of research conducted in Georgia, finding that just 2 percent of people were responsible for 20 percent of transmissions. So what makes a person part of the 2 percent? According to experts, there are four primary factors that come into play.
Since the first cases of coronavirus were identified, it has become clear that the virus multiplies inside of some people at a greater rate than others. “It’s possible that some people become virus chimneys, blasting out clouds of pathogens with each breath,” the NYT explains. However, Dr. Nelson doesn’t think this the main factor defining a superspreader. “I think the circumstances are a lot more important,” she said.
Some people are situationally more prone to becoming super spreaders. For example, a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t have to leave the house—especially during lockdown—is less likely to be a superspreader than someone who works at a meat plant or a nursing home, and has to show up to work every day.
Researchers believe that when it comes to the virus, from the time you become infected until you are no longer sick, there is a narrow window when you are the most contagious. This period of time starts a few days after infectious, before you even have symptoms, claim researchers.
One thing has become clear from all the data compiled of superspreading events—some places are more likely to host outbreaks than others. Due to the fact that the virus is primarily spread by respiratory droplets, places where people are close together, talking loudly, singing, or laughing are perfect breeding grounds. These include bars, restaurants, religious settings, weddings, family functions, and conventions. Researchers have also concluded that places with poor ventilation or unfortunate airflow can also ignite spread.
It’s important to remember that if you are social distancing and wearing a mask any time you aren’t, your chances of becoming a superspreader decrease dramatically. Additionally, by understanding the puzzle pieces of a superspreading event, you can do your part to prevent them from occurring. And no matter who you are: Only leave the home if it’s essential, wear a face covering unless your doctor advises against it, wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing, monitor your health and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.