Without masks and a vaccine, we could reach Herd Immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We break down the science of it.


Medical researchers are constantly learning new information about the coronavirus, leading to improved treatments and practices. At the same time, many questions remain unanswered, such as whether those who get infected develop immunity and, if so, for how long.

More concerning for public health experts is the abundance of misinformation about COVID-19, fueled in part by what they say are mixed messages from the federal government. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recognized airborne transmission of the virus after briefly acknowledging in September what the scientific community had been arguing for months, then taking down the guidance from its website days later.

Misconceptions about the potential severity of a disease that often doesn’t manifest any symptoms and the belief that it only threatens old, infirm folks are among the notions medical professionals want to dispel.

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USA TODAY spoke to some of them seeking to clarify some common doubts:

Is 6 feet really a safe distance?

That’s more a rule of thumb than a hard-and-fast instruction. Much the determination depends on the level of ventilation and whether people are wearing masks. Six feet apart from others is generally safe outside, but not always inside.

“Under certain conditions, particularly indoors and in areas with poor airflow around unmasked people infected with COVID-19, the virus can be transmitted via an airborne route via so-called aerosols (very fine particles suspended in air),’’ said Dr. Benjamin Singer, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “These particles can hang in the air and transmit over distances greater than six feet.’’

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What type of face masks should the general public use?

Surgical masks, which are inexpensive and readily available, and cloth masks made of thick cotton are effective at limiting the virus’ spread. They provide some protection for the wearers but more for those around them. Neck gaiters and masks made of stretchy fabric are not considered as effective at preventing the spread of infectious droplets.

Is indoor dining safe?

Experts still consider it risky, despite measures such as limiting the number of diners and keeping them distanced.

“One of the biggest risks with indoor dining is everyone has their masks off, and if the ventilation isn’t great, you can get sick,’’ said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of Global Health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, and an emergency room physician, adding that he would eat at restaurant outdoors but not indoors.

Does sanitizing door handles and high-touch surfaces make a difference?

Not much. Cioe-Peña calls it “mostly theater,’’ pointing out there are limited circumstances under which people can get infected from those surfaces.

Said Singer: “Available data do not point toward