How ‘Just Meeting a Few Friends’ Can Become a Superspreader Event

  • There have been recent news reports of superspreader events at large gatherings, like at the White House.
  • However, experts say small, private events, like family gatherings, can also put you at risk.
  • “COVID fatigue” may be playing a role, as people begin to let their guard down.
  • Experts say it’s important to continue taking the same precautions that we have taken since the beginning of the pandemic, such as wearing masks and washing hands.

Sometimes, there’s the perception that it’s mainly large gatherings that put people at risk for getting COVID-19.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in August on a superspeader event that occurred at an overnight camp in Georgia. Hundreds of participants tested positive for COVID-19.

More recently, there was a superspreader event at the White House that led to President Trump and several other attendees becoming ill.

However, experts say it’s not just about how many people are present. It’s about how infectious a particular individual’s case might be.

Even a small event, like a family get-together, has the potential to be a superspreader event if a person with a highly contagious case of COVID-19 is present.

If people aren’t following the proper precautions — like wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing — this increases the risk as well.

What is a superspreader event?

According to S. Wesley Long, MD, PhD, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College, a superspreader event is one where a single person with the virus comes into contact with multiple other people, leading to unusually large clusters of cases.

Joshua LaBaer, MD, PhD, a COVID-19 researcher at Arizona State University, further explained that, while many people think the virus spreads homogeneously (with each individual spreading the virus to one or two other people), this may not be the case.

There’s growing evidence that suggests that most people never transmit the virus. However, others may be capable of spreading it to larger numbers of people.

He says that superspreading has been documented at many events, especially where there are groups of people coming together.

“There are no specific definitions here,” said LaBaer, “but bars, churches, rallies (motorcycle, political, and others), funerals, restaurants, and now, even the White House, have all hosted documented superspreader events that lead to sometimes dozens of individuals getting infected at the same time.”

When are we at greater risk for a superspreader event?

“When people gather together in close proximity, do not maintain spacing, and do not wear masks. All of these increase risks,” said LaBaer. “The more people that gather, the more likely one of them will be infectious… Once the number gets above 30, almost certainly someone will be infectious.”

It’s also important to note that a lack of symptoms is no guarantee that no one is sick.

“This has not been fully documented yet, but we believe that 2 to 3 days after being exposed to the virus and getting infected, we become infectious,” said LaBaer.

“And this is before we develop symptoms,” he emphasized. “We remain infectious thereafter for at least a week, and probably 10 days.”

LaBaer also notes that about 40 percent of spread is caused by people who have not yet had symptoms or may never have symptoms.

“It is why this virus is so dangerous,” he explained.

What role is “COVID fatigue” playing?

“COVID fatigue” may also be playing a part in the increasing number of superspreader events.

“This is an incredibly hard situation,” said Long. “All of the precautions begin to take their toll; and, as we suppress community spread, it begins to seem like maybe the virus has gone away and we don’t need to be so strict.”

But, he added, the virus is still circulating in the community. “So when we stop taking precautions, we put ourselves and our community at risk.”

“Understandably, everyone is tired of wearing masks, tired of spacing out, and wants to return to life as it was,” said LaBaer.

“But the virus is always there, and it doesn’t care about fatigue. It is programmed to leap from person to person when the opportunity arises.”

How can we reduce the risk for superspreading?

Long says our best protection is to continue following the same “common sense” precautions that we have been taking since the pandemic began, including wearing masks, physically distancing, washing hands, and avoiding large gatherings.

“Keep groups small,” said LaBaer. “Less than 10 for sure.”

He added, “If you will be around people you are not normally around, even if it is a relative, wear masks.” He advises that people only take their masks off around the people who live in their home.

As far as when it’s safe to be around a person who has been ill, Long says that it’s generally OK about 2 to 3 days after fever has subsided without the use of medication and the respiratory symptoms are improved.

To be even safer, says LaBaer, wait until the person has had two negative polymerise chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Finally, when gathering in groups, it’s also important to keep a list of who was present and how they can be contacted.

If someone becomes ill, this information becomes a vital tool in identifying who may have contracted the virus and may need to isolate, says Long.

It also helps to identify where the virus originated from.

The bottom line

After following all of the experts’ recommendations for months on end, it’s tempting to want to get together with friends and family.

However, getting together in groups also allows for people with COVID-19 to spread the virus to a larger number of people.

It’s important to be aware of this fact and continue following the safety guidelines, such as wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding large gatherings.

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