Your Most Vexing New Coronavirus Questions, Answered

Lauren Goode: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I’m Lauren Goode, I’m a senior writer at WIRED and my cohost, Michael Calore is out this week. So I was thinking maybe I would just monologue for 45 minutes, with some ad breaks. Of course I would not do that to you. I’ve actually invited our excellent health and science writers, Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers, back on the show. Megan, Adam, thank you for being here. By here, I mean, they’re at home.

Adam Rogers: Happy to be anywhere, but nice to see your face on the Zoom as always.

Megan Molteni: Hello from my closet in Minneapolis. Glad to be here.

LG: The reason why I wanted to bring Adam and Megan on the show this week is because we’re in a strange phase of the coronavirus pandemic right now. After months of quarantine, cities and businesses are tentatively lifting restrictions and reopening around the world. But that of course doesn’t mean the coronavirus has just gone away. While essential workers have been interacting with people and exposing themselves to the virus for months now, for a lot of people, these lifts on restrictions mean that going places and seeing people is possible again, but with a lot of caveats.

So people are starting to ask questions about how they should and shouldn’t interact with other people. This episode was actually inspired by one of our own WIRED colleagues who asked a question in Slack about a complicated family situation. Since Megan and Adam are two of our resident coronavirus experts, I’ve brought them on the show to help answer some of these. We went a little bit longer than usual this week, but that’s because so many of you sent in great questions and honestly, there’s no easy answer.

All right. So the first batch of questions came to us through WIRED’s Instagram. Then later on in the show, I’m going to get to our staff questions and we’re going to have some people calling in. First question from Instagram. “Do I need to wear a mask all the time when I go out?”

AR: Here’s the logic with the mask. The logic is it’s a respiratory virus and there are a few different kind of understood ways that respiratory viruses as genre, generically, transmit from person to person. But some of those things aren’t understood yet, specifically about this one, about SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes Covid-19, which is the coronavirus we’re talking about. Not only is one of the modes of transmission, the kind of large droplets that people will give off when they cough or sneeze, the way that you would catch a cold or the flu.

The idea is a mask will stop those. If you cough, it’ll stop those big droplets, these particles of snot and spit, that are carrying virus. But it’ll also stop smaller expiratory particles, much smaller, less than half a micron particles that come out apparently when you’re talking, when you’re exhaling, when you’re singing, perhaps there’s still some questions about that. Those behave very differently than those other droplets.

So there’s some science to try to figure out the large droplets you cough them out into the air. Then, how far do they spread? That’s what the six feet social distancing thing is about. People disagree about whether six feet is enough or too much or whatever, but that’s what that is. You cough them out and then gravity pulls them down. But these small particles, because they’re so small and because they dry out almost immediately, when they hit the air, they hang around more, they float around, they behave a little bit like a gas. Not completely like a gas. People are going to yell at me for saying that, but they float in the air. For how long and then how much virus do you need to then take in and where do you inhale that into your lungs? All of these things, people are still trying to figure out.

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