We Are Probably Missing Something About the Virus (and Being Near Death)

There is evidence that the virus is mostly spread through the air, but not the way we thought. “Droplets” might not be the main problem. They tend to fall from the air after traveling a few feet. It may be much smaller particles, what scientists call “aerosols”, that are the main culprit. It’s being suggested, therefore, that we treat the virus like cigarette smoke. Smoke isn’t much of a problem outdoors, but it is a big problem indoors, especially in poorly-ventilated spaces. 

Nature had an article about the issue last month. The following is from a Time magazine article written by a Colorado chemistry professor:

Inhaling a little whiff of “smoke” here and there is OK, but a lot of “smoke” for a sustained period of time and without a mask is risky. . . .  

We should continue doing what has already been recommended: wash hands, keep six feet apart, and so on. But that is not enough. A new, consistent and logical set of recommendations must emerge to reduce aerosol transmission. I propose the following: [avoid crowding, especially indoors; increase fresh air and ventilation; avoid close proximity for long durations, especially where there is talking, singing or yelling; and wear tight-fitting masks]. These are the important factors in mathematical models of aerosol transmission, and can also be simply understood as factors that impact how much “smoke” we would inhale.

[This] suggests that we should do as many activities as possible outdoors, as schools did to avoid the spread of tuberculosis a century ago, despite harsh winters. . . .

Second, masks are essential, even when we are able to maintain social distance. We should also pay attention to fitting masks snugly, as they are not just a parapet against ballistic droplets, but also a means to prevent “smoke” from leaking in through gaps. We should not [talk without masks], because we exhale aerosols 10 times as much when talking compared to breathing . . . 

In a fast-moving viral pandemic, scientific understanding will inevitably change as research catches up to the speed at which the virus spreads. However, it seems clear that aerosols are more important when it comes to transmitting COVID-19 than we thought six months ago—and certainly more important than public health officials are currently making them out to be. 

On a related topic, it’s true that a fewl countries have had more deaths per capita than the United States. Peru is the worst. Followed by Chile and Brazil. We’re fourth worst. With only 4% of the world’s population, the United States has had almost one-quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. And we’re still losing close to 1,000 Americans every day.

The president wanted to build a wall to protect us from Mexico, a poor country. The US is a rich country, yet Mexico has fewer deaths per capita than we do. We should keep that in mind when we hear his supporters claim the president has done a good job keeping us safe and alive.

And given that we’re considering death, it’s interesting to note that what are called “near death experiences” (NDEs) aren’t always blissful. People sometimes report a feeling of peace, floating above their bodies, the disappearance of pain, etc. Scientific American published a good article on the subject in June. Aside from making the point that there are ways to induce similar experiences in a person who isn’t dying, the author suggests that all is not well in the world of NDEs:

They share broad commonalities . . . They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings such as angels; a Proustian recollection or even review of lifetime memories, both good and bad (“my life flashed in front of my eyes”); or a distorted sense of time and space. There are some underlying physiological explanations for these perceptions . . . 

NDEs can be either positive or negative experiences. The former receive all the press and relate to the feeling of an overwhelming presence, something numinous, divine. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe. Yet not all NDEs are blissful—some can be frightening, marked by intense terror, anguish, loneliness and despair.

It is likely that the publicity around NDEs has built up expectations about what people should feel after such episodes. It seems possible, in fact, that distressing NDEs are significantly underreported because of shame, social stigma and pressure to conform to the prototype of the “blissful” NDE.