WASHINGTON — In guidance updated on Monday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally acknowledged that “airborne transmission” of “small droplets” can be responsible for coronavirus infections, including at a distance of more than six feet away, in some situations.

The updated guidance reflects a continuing battle between public health officials and the Trump administration over how to accurately describe risks associated with different environments.

Although scientists have long known that the coronavirus is spread through air—as opposed to by touching contaminated surfaces—the debate over whether it is “airborne” has to do with just how long viral particles linger in the air, and what size those particles must be to remain infectious.

“There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising,” the updated guidance says.

The new guidance appears to caution against activities such as political rallies and sports events, where many people may be crowded together indoors. The CDC now says that, in those enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces, “the amount of infectious smaller droplet and particles produced by the people with COVID-19 became concentrated enough to spread the virus to other people. The people who were infected were in the same space during the same time or shortly after the person with COVID-19 had left.”

Robert Redfield, MD, Director, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2020. (Alex Edelman/Pool via Reuters)
Robert Redfield, MD, Director, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2020. (Alex Edelman/Pool via Reuters)

The CDC has frequently found its scientists silenced or subverted by the White House, which has consistently sought to downplay the risks of contracting a virus that has killed 210,000 people in the United States. In late September, the CDC was forced to delete a guidance describing the airborne qualities of the coronavirus. The agency said that guidance has been a “draft” that was “posted in error.” Critics charged that political pressure was at work.

The new guidance comes as President Trump remains hospitalized with what could be a serious case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. A number of White House staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well. 

A statement to the press from the CDC’s media center said that people “can protect themselves from the virus that causes COVID-19 by staying at least 6 feet away from others, wearing a mask that covers their nose and mouth, washing their hands frequently, cleaning touched surfaces often and staying home when sick.”

Trump has routinely mocked both social distancing and mask-wearing. Even since his diagnosis, some senior White House staffers have refused to wear masks.

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