I hate to encourage anybody to visit a social media site. But unless you’ve completely given up on Twitter, I believe you ought to unroll a thread posted there on May 4 by a virologist working in Scotland. Dr. Muge Cevik’s twenty-two tweets apply preliminary contact tracing results to the dynamics of transmission in an effort to answer the biggest question of all: how do people catch the virus? What can we do to slow down the spread? So far, most recommendations by authorities — even medical authorities — have been either been based on common sense, viral precedent, or superstition. These have been helpful (even superstition has, because superstition tends to lean toward caution) but woefully incomplete. The doctor tries to fill in some yawning blanks with charts and graphs and hard counts, and even a little advice of her own.
Her tweets broadly reinforce the conclusions drawn by Quillette editor and non-scientist Jonathan Kay in his self-researched piece on coronavirus superspreader events. Before anybody else in the media, Kay went out on a limb and argued that transmission of this pathogen was, primarily, an indoor phenomenon. You might well catch the virus at choir practice, or at a bar, or a crowded club where people had to shout in order to be heard; unless you were unbelievably unlucky, you weren’t going to get it from a runner on the street. To spread, this pathogen needed ballistic droplet flight: ejected from the mouth of an infected person by a cough or a sneeze, or singing, or loud and protracted conversation. Given the virus-dispersing effects of sunlight and air currents, it’s not at all likely that it will happen outside.
Dr. Cevik goes farther, and unlike Kay, who drew his conclusions from anecdotal evidence reported in the press, she’s got medical studies to back her up. In tweet number fifteen, she spells out the implications of her research in language so bold that I’ve read it twenty times just to be sure it says what it says: close and prolonged contact is required for transmission. Not a breath taken in the wake of a passerby, not a brief exchange of pleasantries on the street, not an accidental stroll through an airborne toxic event, but genuine interaction with an infected person, most likely in a cramped quarters where the ventilation isn’t what it ought to be. Her list of places where you’re more likely to get it is remarkably similar to Kay’s, and she also agrees with him about where, and how, you probably won’t get it — all of which feels like a vindication of citizen epidemiology. Dr. Cevik also suggests that your chances of getting it from a chance encounter with a child are slim, which may be a relief for those of us (me) who see children as mobile germ containers.
The thread from Dr. Cevik is, I think, the best news I’ve gotten in eight weeks — news so good that it’s actually taken a few days for its implications to sink in. Her findings are the loudest rattle yet from the hinges of the cage door we’ve been banging on for weeks. If we keep our masks on, and steer clear of protracted interactions with strangers, we ought to be able to get out to parks, and pedal our bicycles, and roll around in the grass without worrying that we’re going to kill our neighbors. For a few weeks, it looked like the summer would be canceled outright; now, I believe that we’re going to have one after all. It’ll be shaky, and awkward, and weird, but it’ll happen. Meanwhile, we can follow the prescription that some other incisive Scots gave us two decades ago: get out of the office and into the springtime.
We may be able to take some action on behalf of those required to remain inside. Workplaces can be reimagined, airflow can be improved, class can be held outdoors. Someone can open up a window. None of that is going to stop the pandemic, but I’ve become convinced that it’ll slow its acceleration. A real model of transmission is finally beginning to take shape, and, with it, we’re finding that we’re not quite as stuck in the murk as we worried we were. This is why contact tracing is so critical for public mental health: darkness makes us feel powerless, and illumination allows us to recognize the chinks in the armor of the horseman of the apocalypse we’re facing. Fears tend to proliferate, imaginations take us on long and tortured detours, and platitudes and folk wisdom can only reverse so much of the damage we’re doing to our own minds. Science is our only reassurance. Thank you, Dr. Cevik, for providing some.