It turns out there’s not a black-and-white line between those two things. That dichotomy was false. This one appears to be almost entirely droplets. Occasionally, you can detect some lingering in the air for longer periods, but not clearly enough that it could infect someone unless someone is very sick, coughing and sneezing, and you were in close contact with them in a place with no airflow. So, you could be more than six feet away, but say we’re sharing a cruise-ship cabin and I'm just coughing and sneezing stuff into the air. It’s shooting out, and you're on the bed eight feet away, but we’re constantly just using the same air. There is a possibility that could happen.
Wells: So, it’s not impossible that I could walk outside and just breathe it in accidentally, even though there’s no one around?
Hamblin: No, that’s impossible. I want to say that’s impossible. I don’t think anyone should be worrying at that level, because we have to be able to say we can move about the world, not in states of constant fear. And walking is important, especially if we’re going to need to be doing this distancing stuff for a year. If people feel like they can’t go outside and can’t move their bodies, we are going to see compounding of all sorts of other health issues and worsening cases of this disease, because if you are worn down and not exercising and not sleeping and depressed and not eating well, you’re not priming yourself to be in good condition when you do get sick.
Wells: So as far as we understand, it's really: the gooey drops is the problem. Even if they're tiny, they fall to the floor quickly once they're expelled from someone's body. So, it really is getting close to other people and surfaces that are the problem. It's not just, like, the air.
Hamblin: The only instances where we believe the air would be a problem is in a constant exposure. And it would have to be a long-term thing. If you briefly shared an elevator with someone who didn’t even sneeze or cough and you were as far away from that person as you could be in an elevator, there is as close to zero percent chance of anything happening in that situation as possible.
Wells: Okay. So I don’t need to be terrified of going outside and of other people. That blanket terror is not rational. In what situations am I supposed to wear a mask, and what constitutes a “mask,” given that I don't actually have a mask?
Hamblin: Right, we should define “mask.” When you say “mask,” what do you think of?
Wells: Well, I understand there's the N95. I understand there's the surgical mask. And then I understand there's what I did this morning, which is take a scarf and loop it three times around my face, which I wouldn't call a mask, but it is an attempt at some sort of barrier.
Hamblin: So, a respirator is also sometimes referred to as a mask or an N95 mask. Those are these tightly woven things which are rigid and they look like a dog's snout and they are supposed to seal perfectly around your face. These are pretty much medical devices, not something you would wear all day, every day. That's what we definitely have a shortage of. We've exhausted our national strategic stockpile as of this week, which was supposed to last us for a long time. Those are so crucial for people who have to get up real close to someone who is coughing and sneezing. But you don't need that level of seal unless you are close to someone who is coughing and sneezing.