Can COVID BA.4 and BA.5 variants spread outdoors?

We are in amid another wave of COVID-19 driven by the highly contagious variants BA.4 and BA.5, which have a mutation in the coronavirus spike protein that makes these variants more easily attach to (and infect) people.

“Even small amounts of virus floating around could infect you if you’re not wearing a mask,” said Dr. Janak Patel, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. , adding that this could also be the case for some outdoor environments – a situation that was generally considered acceptable during the last two-plus years of the pandemic.

So does that mean you’re at risk every time you go out? Are we back to square one with the pandemic? Fortunately not. But there is an increased risk as we continue to face a more transmissible strain of the virus. Here’s what experts know and don’t know about the spread of COVID outdoors:

It is unclear to what extent the new COVID variant is spreading outdoors.

At this point we are very familiar with COVID uncertainty. And although BA.4 and BA.5 are known to be more transmissible than the other variants, it is not yet clear whether they spread more externally than the other variants.

“We are hearing anecdotal reports from people who have tested positive who believe they had it on the outside,” said Dr. Scott Roberts, associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital. “At this time, we are awaiting additional data to confirm that transmission of COVID is occurring outdoors.”

Roberts added that since BA.5 is more transmissible indoors than previous variants, it is likely to be more transmissible outdoors as well.

But being outdoors is still much, much safer than being indoors.

Roberts pointed out that outdoor spread of COVID is much less common than indoor spread, but nothing is perfect. Overall, spending time outdoors is “a safer prevention mechanism against COVID” due to unlimited ventilation.

“There is free communication of the air with the atmosphere, and it really disperses the aerosols [that can carry COVID-19]so the risk would be much lower,” Roberts explained.

That being said, not all outdoor spaces are created equal.

As the highly transmissible BA.5 variant becomes more widespread, masking outdoors may be a good idea if you cannot maintain a six-foot distance between yourself and others.

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As the highly transmissible BA.5 variant becomes more widespread, masking outdoors may be a good idea if you cannot maintain a six-foot distance between yourself and others.

Some outdoor situations are riskier than others.

At this point, the definition of the outside isn’t exactly agreed upon, Roberts noted. For some people, a tent wedding takes place outdoors. For others, a restaurant with an open wall is outdoors. For the more cautious, a park or hiking trail is the only real outdoor space.

Depending on the external situation you are in, this “changes the ventilation dynamics of that area and can change the risk of COVID for people in it. [space]“, Roberts said, adding that he would feel quite comfortable in a socially distanced outdoor setting, with nothing covering the space (like tents, tarps, overhangs and enclosures), even with the BA variant. .5.

“If you start tweaking that – where there’s kind of an open wall and they call it outside or [you’re in] an outdoor setting full to bursting where [you] can’t step away from others appropriately ― I think it would give me more time to think,” he noted.

Go for small outdoor gatherings now if you can.

“In any community where transmission is very intense, I would say it’s best to be in small groups,” Patel said.

What exactly does a small group mean? Patel said that “it all depends on the context, the space and the type of activity. There is no proven rule. In other words, 10 people crammed at an outdoor table doesn’t mean safe just because there are only a handful of people around.

For Patel, for small group settings to be safe, people can’t shout (COVID spreads more when people sing or shout), you need to be able to maintain some distance from others, and everyone should follow public health measures like hand-washing.

Plan your outdoor gatherings carefully;  although outdoor environments are much safer for the spread of viruses, not all of them are 100% risk-free.

The Good Brigade via Getty Images

Plan your outdoor gatherings carefully; although outdoor environments are much safer for the spread of viruses, not all of them are 100% risk-free.

If you are going to be in a crowded outdoor space, follow health precautions.

Patel stressed that if you attend crowded outdoor events like weddings, sporting games and entertainment events, you should follow health precautions while we await data on the spread of the current subvariants in the outside.

“The key is really making sure there’s adequate distance,” especially if you’re in a situation where someone is sneezing or coughing within feet of you, Roberts pointed out. Although it is less dangerous than being indoors when someone is sneezing, there is still a risk of infection with a highly contagious strain like BA.5.

“Ensuring you are able to distance yourself even in an outdoor setting can only help reduce the risk of spread,” Roberts said.

You should wear a mask if creating distance is impossible (ideally a well-fitting mask, like a KN95) and take a COVID test before going out, Patel said. And, if you’re not feeling well, stay home.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but advice may change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most recent recommendations.

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