Just when the majority of states have reopened most of their businesses, Anthony Fauci, MD, the country’s leading immunologist and infectious disease specialist, has called out three specific venues for having the highest risk of COVID-19 spread. On MSNBC's All In on September 17, host Chris Hayes pointed out that some states have benefited from closing certain establishments—and Dr. Fauci was in complete agreement about the benefit of closing them.
"In fact, the CDC just came out—if you go on their website—with a figure that's really telling,” Dr. Fauci said. “It shows the odds of risk of different types of situations that give you a higher risk of transmissibility.” He’s referring to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published on September 11, which analyzed COVID-19 data from 11 US health care facilities. The risky situations at the top of the list? Being in a gym, bar, or restaurant.
What makes these venues coronavirus hotspots? “What these businesses have in common are people––sometimes lots of people,” Carol A. Winner, MPH, who founded the Give Space personal distancing movement in 2017, tells Health. “Crowded places bring potentially high levels of infection.”
Why are gyms so risky?
According to the CDC report, 7.8% of people who tested positive had been to the gym in the past two weeks, compared to 6.3% of those who tested negative. Dr. Fauci explained that people tend to breathe heavily in gyms, expelling more potentially contaminated droplets into a contained space with no outside air filtering in. Also, gym equipment is shared, and the communal surfaces can harbor germs. In a study published in the journal Sports Health earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25% of the surfaces tested in four different athletic training facilities.
Some gyms are encouraging their users to wear masks when they work out, but Winner points out that when people are sweating and breathing heavily, the temptation is to remove their masks.
What’s the problem with bars?
The CDC said 8.5% of people whose tests came back positive had been to a bar in the previous two weeks, while 5% of people with negative test results had. "You've got to look very carefully at things like bars, [which] are a really important place of spreading of infection. There's no doubt about that," Dr. Fauci said. "And that becomes particularly important if you happen to be in an area where there's a high degree of community spread.”
Should you avoid indoor restaurants?
The CDC report found that 40.9% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 had dined out in the past two weeks, compared to only 27.7% of people who tested negative. "When you have restaurants indoors in a situation where you have a high degree of infection in the community, you're not wearing masks, that's a problem," Dr. Fauci explained in the interview.
Winner agrees. “The most obvious culprit while dining is eating and drinking without a mask, which can spread the virus indoors through recirculated air in the ventilation system,” she says.
How can you stay safe in these places?
If gyms, bars, and restaurants stay open in your area, it’s still sensible to carry out a risk assessment before jumping in. “As Dr. Fauci reminds us, it’s best to start by assessing the level of infection in your community,” Winner suggests. “If there is a high level of community spread, you really want to wait to see those numbers come down.” Many online resources provide current infection data by state and county so you can find out how your area rates; Winner recommends consulting the COVID-19 tracker and interactive charts from 1Point3Acres.
Winner also advises avoiding popular times in gyms, bars, and restaurants, and staying outdoors as much as possible. “An outside yoga class is an inventive way to stay healthy,” she says. “However, we must still be very aware of how close we are to others.”
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