A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenges widespread social distancing guidelines, asserting that the "six-foot rule" is inadequate in mitigating indoor transmission of COVID-19.
"Our analysis shows that many spaces may be safe to re-open at full occupancy, while others carry significant risk," MIT Professor Martin Bazant, who conducted the study alongside Professor John Bush, explained to Fox News, "depending on the amount of time people spend together, the ventilation rate, whether face masks are worn and other factors."
The peer-reviewed study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, focused on factors such as time spent indoors, air filtration and circulation, immunization and variant strains.
"I think if you run the numbers, even right now for many types of spaces, you’d find that there is not a need for occupancy restrictions," he told CNBC.
Both Bazant and Bush teach applied mathematics, while Bazant also teaches chemical engineering. As such, the professors developed a calculation to determine the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
"We argue that, in the context of airborne transmission in a well-mixed space, the benefits of the six-foot rule are limited," Bazant said. "As everyone in the room is breathing the same air, they share the same risk. Social distancing may thus be giving you a false sense of security. However, we note that the six-foot rule is valuable in limiting transmission by respiratory jets, which pose a heightened risk when people are not wearing masks."
Pathogen-laced droplets travel through the air due to the various activities people casually engage in, even simply eating, speaking and breathing. Original guidance focused on droplets that were propelled by coughing or sneezing, but new research backs the idea that airflow will carry droplets throughout a room.
Even the type of activity mattered significantly: exercising, singing or shouting increased pathogen output, acting to decrease the time that someone can spend indoors before risking greater infection "by an order of magnitude."
The study suggests that it could be just as effective to open windows or install new fans to keep air moving as it would to install a new filtration system – though significantly less expensive.
Total time spent indoors with others may be just as important a focus as distance when determining the risk of transmission, according to Bazant and Bush.