To the Editor:
As Rhode Island enters the winter season, temperatures are beginning to drop and many studies have demonstrated that colder weather and lower humidity are correlated with higher transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. By simply talking or breathing, we release respiratory droplets and aerosols (tiny fluid particles which could carry the coronavirus pathogen) which can remain in the air for minutes to hours. The ambiguous nature of COVID-19 has led many to dismiss the possibility of airborne transmission. However, last month’s Rose Garden “super-spreader event” has made it apparent that the US must shift its focus in containing the virus by mitigating airborne transmission. In the past year, we have become obsessed with disinfecting and cleaning surfaces (which is a good hygienic practice), but as winter approaches, we should be more concerned with the greater likelihood of contracting the virus by breathing in coronavirus droplets and aerosols.
Earlier this year, a medical study revealed that population density, social distancing, and temperature are three mediating factors which have a significant influence on the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2. Whereas warmer weather is correlated with reduced transmissibility, colder temperatures and lower humidity are associated with a higher prevalence of the virus. During the winter, we spend more time indoors in closer proximity to others and the mucous lining of our noses becomes irritated by cool, dry air, rendering our tiny cilia hairs less capable of stopping coronavirus aerosols from entering our nasal passages and attacking our immune systems. In essence, the lower humidity makes it difficult to clear the virus from the nose and allows coronavirus aerosols to spread freely in the air.
Other countries, such as New Zealand, have demonstrated that strict social distancing guidelines can effectively eradicate the virus, though this is easier to accomplish at warmer temperatures. Although the US has missed a promising opportunity to combat the virus at warmer temperatures, there are still several short-term personal precautions (in addition to avoiding crowds, social distancing, and mask wearing) which can prevent us from contracting and spreading the virus. With the onset of winter, routine sinus flushes can serve as a safe and effective way to prevent our nasal passages from becoming dry. As influenza is a seasonal pathogen which tends to strike in the winter, getting vaccinated for the flu can act as an indirect way of protecting ourselves from contracting COVID-19 via strengthening our immune systems. In terms of communitarian precautions, schools, nursing homes, and other institutions which house large numbers of people in small, confined spaces should invest in air filtration systems and humidifiers which improve indoor ventilation and airflow.
One year into a pandemic, over 200,000 people have died in the US and the President himself has contracted the virus, and yet there are still tens of thousands of Americans who refuse to accept the severity of COVID-19. In order to establish herd immunity in the US, we must educate those who remain skeptical of the dangers of COVID-19. Whether community-driven or state funded, educational campaigns are needed to ensure that everyone fully comprehends how severe COVID-19 is and the significance of airborne transmission. While we await a vaccine, it is necessary now more than ever that we social distance, avoid crowds, and wear masks, given that colder temperatures will likely yield increased transmission of the virus.