[Question] COVID-19 transmission: Are we overemphasizing touching rather than breathing?


Here’s the CDC (yeah I know, not always a re­li­able source, but the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment guide seems to back it up):

The virus is thought to spread mainly from per­son-to-per­son.

  • Between peo­ple who are in close con­tact with one an­other (within about 6 feet).

  • Through res­pi­ra­tory droplets pro­duced when an in­fected per­son coughs or sneezes.

Th­ese droplets can land in the mouths or noses of peo­ple who are nearby or pos­si­bly be in­haled into the lungs.


It may be pos­si­ble that a per­son can get COVID-19 by touch­ing a sur­face or ob­ject that has the virus on it and then touch­ing their own mouth, nose, or pos­si­bly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Wait, what?? This is wildly at odds with the anti-trans­mis­sion mes­sag­ing I’ve heard. Where I live (USA), I hear end­less ap­peals to wash hands, not shake hands, and not touch your face, etc. I hear barely a whisper about the grave risks of be­ing in­doors in a pub­lic, poorly-ven­tilated space. I mean, that CDC page seems to im­ply that stand­ing in a poorly-ven­tilated gro­cery store, even >6 feet from oth­ers, may well be riskier than touch­ing a point-of-sale touch­screen and then im­me­di­ately touch­ing your face. (Re­mem­ber, the virus stays in the air 30 min­utes. [ETA: oops, I just learned that that ar­ti­cle was later re­tracted with­out ex­pla­na­tion.] Or as an­other ex­am­ple, the im­pli­ca­tion seems to be that just breath­ing in­side an empty ele­va­tor (which was pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied within the pre­vi­ous 30 min­utes) is quite pos­si­bly an even higher-risk ac­tivity than lick­ing the ele­va­tor but­tons. Really? Really???

(And don’t get me started on masks … Masks & googles are not only not sug­gested in the USA, they’re ac­tively stig­ma­tized, de­spite makeshift home­made masks be­ing I think at least some­what effec­tive and not con­tribut­ing to the on­go­ing sup­ply short­age, and gog­gles not be­ing in short sup­ply at all....)

I’m pos­ing this as a ques­tion be­cause I don’t have enough con­fi­dence, with­out do­ing more re­search, to de­clare that our pub­lic health mes­sag­ing has been so wildly mis­di­rected (at least, the mes­sag­ing I’ve re­ceived). Does any­one have bet­ter ev­i­dence? Or what’s your take?

(Up­date: After read­ing this ar­ti­cle and this ar­ti­cle, I’m some­what less con­cerned about air that was ex­haled more than a few sec­onds ago, and now think­ing that the main things to think about are (1) be­ing near some­one cough­ing, (2) be­ing near some­one talk­ing, (3) touch­ing sur­faces then touch­ing your face, (4) aerosols from a bath­room (ap­par­ently a SARS pa­tient with di­ar­rhea was a su­per-spreader, in­fect­ing peo­ple up to 200 me­ters away!). I’m very un­cer­tain about the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of these four things. I’m also not sure what “near” means, see dis­cus­sion here.)