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Your lingering questions about COVID safety, answered

Wear a mask when walking? How close can you get to high-risk individuals if you’re outside? Are rented cabins safe?

Michael Osterholm
University of Minnesota
Michael Osterholm on walking outdoors, staying six feet or more apart: “I don’t believe you have to wear a mask.”
It’s August, and you’ve been living amid COVID-19 for five months.

You’ve adjusted your work life, your home life and your social life to account for tiny, invisible particles of virus that threaten to sicken you, your family and your friends at any moment.

But despite all this rearranging and trying to be responsible — and an ever-growing flood of information about what to do and what not to do — there are still a lot of questions about how to live (relatively) safely amidst the virus. So we checked in with Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota to answer some questions about how to minimize chances of getting the disease and transmitting it to others.

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If we’re spending time with people who are high-risk, whether because of age or underlying medical conditions, and we’re outside, is it enough to be six feet apart?

According to Osterholm, the answer is complicated. But here’s a way to think about it.

First of all, he said, getting infected with COVID-19 is not like a game of tag — you don’t walk by someone and, bam, get infected. “Just coming in contact with the virus, inhaling some virus into your lungs likely will not lead to an infection,” Osterholm said.

What could get you infected is being in close enough contact for a period of time with someone who’s infected. The unknown here is how much time and what dose it takes to become infected, but that’s something Osterholm said researchers are working on.

What is clear is that being outside dissipates the virus; it’s a function of airflow. But being outside doesn’t guarantee you’re safe. While spending time with anybody can present a risk, being outdoors, distanced, and yes, potentially wearing masks are all things that make transmission less likely.

Here’s an example that’s illustrative of the point: Osterholm said he recently got a question about grandparents who wanted to see a new grandchild in person, taking precautions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. He conferred with colleagues and they agreed that if the parents stood 10 feet apart from the grandparents on a driveway and handed the baby over for one minute, it wouldn’t be a high risk encounter. There’s proximity involved, but it’s a short encounter.

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What about masks while you’re out walking? I see some people wearing them, but most people are not.

If people are walking in outdoor air and stay six feet or more apart, “I don’t believe you have to wear a mask,” Osterholm said. He doesn’t wear a mask in these settings and said to his knowledge, his colleagues don’t either.

The virus may still be there, but it’s dissipated in all directions outdoors, and you’re therefore unlikely to inhale enough of it to make you sick.

Say I rent a cabin. Is staying there likely to get me sick? How long could coronavirus linger in the air from a previous occupant? 

“It’s all about air exchange,” Osterholm said. “If you have the windows open and the air is going through, it could be minutes. If you have a closed room, it could be hours.” But the air will move through more slowly on a still day than a windy one.

Should kids be playing at other people’s houses, specifically inside other people’s houses?

“The more people you have contact with in that kind of indoor setting, the greater the likelihood of transmission,” Osterholm said. While younger kids have a lower risk of developing serious disease, they can bring the virus home to their more-at-risk parents or grandparents, or transmit it to other people in the community.

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MDH officials have said people should still get needed medical care. But what about something like a check-up? We had a 70-year-old reader who wondered if getting an annual check-up in person was unwise.

Osterholm said he doesn’t know of any cases transmitted in a clinic setting where people go for care like this. “If there’s a reason you feel like you need to be seen, then you should go. Definitely,” Osterholm said.

That said, it’s important to think about transportation. If you’re driving yourself, that’s not particularly risky. If you’re taking transit or driving with another person, it could add a layer of risk.