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This Expert’s Advice For Waiting Out Winter With The Coronavirus? Bundle Up, Stay Outside

St. Louis University professor Enbal Shacham says the risk of coronavirus spread increases indoors, where air doesn't circulate as much.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis University professor Enbal Shacham says the risk of coronavirus spread increases indoors, where air doesn't circulate as much.

For months, doctors and public health experts have warned that the coronavirus pandemiccould get worse as temperatures drop in the fall and more people head indoors to socialize. What will families face as they prepare to host holiday gatherings? How will students cope now that schools are considering in-person classes again?

St. Louis University public health professor Enbal Shacham discussed the best ways to socialize while staying safe with St. Louis Public Radio reporter Sarah Fentem.

Sarah Fentem: It sounds like a lot of the risk for the cold weather comes from being inside. Can you talk about why being inside poses a greater risk than being outside with this particular virus?

Enbal Shacham: The transmission of COVID is through droplets and through aerosols and somewhat through touching other contaminated surfaces. When we think about those three pieces, we have to consider: Where is the most alarm?

When we’re indoors, there’s airflow that is limited to outdoor new air. Our HVAC units, many are not updated to respond to the need of cleaning more often. It’s the same air.

In an airplane, that recycling of air is every three seconds. That’s a model of what we could do in schools, that kind of thing.

Being in indoors spaces and concentrated spaces, we’re likely going to see an increase [in cases]. And so controlling the indoor spaces is the best we can do.

Fentem: So if someone was saying, “Oh, what if we were to all get together at my house for Thanksgiving, but everyone is supposed to wear masks, even if we're inside.” What I’m hearing is that probably isn’t enough to keep you safe from the virus.

Shacham: No, not if someone is infected.

The other opportunity in tremendous growth we’ve had in science has been the different types of testing opportunities. Now, we’re able to havesaliva tests. They’re promoting the idea of at-home tests. Imagine having everyone have to get a clean COVID test before you can commit to Thanksgiving. Is that a possibility today? Not everywhere, but maybe that would be a decent investment for Thanksgiving.

Fentem: People are staring down the winter, clinging to the last of the warm weather, knowing things are going to get different really quickly. Do you have any advice for people as they prepare for what could be a really different season than they’ve seen in the past?

Shacham: I think earlier in the pandemic, there were a lot of Zoom happy hours and visits with family. Some of them may have got operationalized, this is what we do with our families far away, but there are also people who don't want to spend more than one minute on Zoom or their computers. What are some of the other things we can do? What is the creative new thing we can do?

The benefit and the challenge is that we have the internet and we have connectivity and we have to keep using that even though we’re probably sick of it.

Fentem: Or start to embrace the cold weather and be outside.

Shacham: Absolutely. I’ve done some great winter hikes that are exciting to see. And there are no bugs, which is really great. I think [it’s about] embracing the cold and saying, “How can we be outdoors and still enjoy our time together?” It’s definitely a weight on families but i think in the long run we’ll probably be better off.

I feel like we should be focusing on bundling up, honestly. Outdoors fires at restaurants and that sort of place. How [could] green spaces could be translated into something that are really socially distanced public open spaces? What can we do to create that space available for socialization? It’s a cost. I think the cost is necessary, though.

But I also know that we can do outdoor winters. I still am a strong proponent of having school outdoors. If public schools should go back to school, if they choose to do that, they should be doing it outside.

Fentem: How would they do that, though? It is so cold here!

Shacham: I don’t know. I think we can find ways where we break up the days we can schedule it so it’s not a full day anyway.

In the 1918 flu, they had reported how they had schools out in the Northeast, and they put the kids outside in … sleeping bags! It’s possible!

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.