On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — was officially a global pandemic. In the four months since then, we’ve experienced lockdown, quarantine, toilet paper shortages, and general panic. With no cure or vaccine forthcoming, stopping the spread by keeping our distance is the only truly effective way to stay safe.
Every other country in the world figured this out sometime in April. The United States, it seems, is content to continue breaking infection records. On local, state, and federal levels, politicians and legislators are loosening restrictions, allowing people to gather, and contributing to the creation of COVID-19 superspreader events. How do superspreader events increase the spread of the virus?
How COVID-19 spreads
To understand COVID-19 superspreader events, first, we need to comprehend how the virus spreads. There was a lot of speculation and panic at the beginning of the pandemic because we didn’t understand how it spread, but four months later, we’ve got a clearer picture.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus spreads primarily from person to person. Viral cells become suspended in the respiratory droplets that we all emit when we talk, breathe, laugh, sing, cough, or sneeze. If you’re in close contact with someone who is infected, they can easily spread the virus to you.
Scientists are still studying how long the virus can survive on surfaces and how long those respiratory particles can remain in the air — especially in enclosed spaces. Some experts are expressing concern that air conditioning — a staple in many Southern states — could be contributing to the increase in cases in states like Florida and Texas. Florida just broke yet another record with more than 15,000 new positive cases on July 12, 2020.
The biggest challenge we’re facing with quelling the spread of COVID-19 is the fact that you can be contagious while you don’t present any symptoms at all. These asymptomatic spreaders can go about their regular lives, and while they may never get sick, they spread the virus to everyone who crosses their path.
It is important to note that there is a distinct difference between asymptomatic individuals who carry the virus but don’t get sick and those who are presymptomatic. The latter will go on to develop symptoms, but may still be contagious in their presymptomatic phase.
What is a superspreader event?
The concept of a superspreader event isn’t new. Have you ever heard of Mary Mallon? You might know her more common moniker — Typhoid Mary. She spread typhoid fever to dozens of people between 1900 and 1907 without ever becoming ill herself. She was the first documented superspreader. Any infectious disease can trigger a superspreader event. In recent memory, we’ve seen superspreader cases of SARS, MERS, and Ebola — and that’s all just in the last two decades.
To understand how superspreader events can happen, you need to understand the concept of a reproduction number, or R0 (pronounced R naught). Every virus has an R0 factor that details how fast it can spread by measuring how many people the average infected individual is likely to spread it to.
Measles, one of the most contagious viruses on the planet, has an Ro factor of between 16 and 32, meaning that if you’re contagious, you could potentially spread the virus to 32 people. This virus’s Ro factor is distinctly less in vaccinated communities where it would be impossible for it to spread.
As far as scientists have discovered, COVID-19 has an Ro factor of between two and three, so under normal circumstances, an individual will spread the virus to two or three more people. As the growing number of cases in the United States has shown, we’re not experiencing this pandemic under normal circumstances.
COVID-19 superspreader events
If you get a large number of people together, they’re going to talk. They’re going to laugh. They might even break into song if the mood strikes them. All of these behaviors could spread COVID-19 from an infected individual. Some might even be more prone to spreading it. People who talk loudly, get in your face when you’re having a conversation, or just have to get in for a hug are all at risk for spreading the virus.
If you have one infected person in a crowded room, you’ve got the potential for a superspreader event. In these cases, COVID-19’s Ro could jump from two to three to 20-30 or more, depending on how tightly packed everyone is. President Trump’s rally in Tulsa in June is currently classified as a potential superspreader event, especially because the president’s presence drew in crowds from nearby virus hotspots.
This factor is why bars, theme parks, and beaches got closed at the beginning of the pandemic. These crowded, enclosed spaces create the perfect environment for a virus spread through respiratory particles to make their way through the population.
Prevent superspreader events in your community
What can you do to prevent superspreader events in your community? Start by doing all the things you’ve been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. Stay home as much as possible and only leave for necessary supplies and groceries. Wash your hands often and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when handwashing isn’t an option. Practice social distancing from anyone who isn’t in your immediate household. Wear a cloth mask whenever you’re out in public, especially in places like grocery stores where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
If your governor, representatives, or mayor are in favor of opening everything up too soon, make your opinion known. Sign petitions and write letters, emails, or text messages to let them know that their constituents don’t support the creation of environments that could result in superspreader events. Let them know in no uncertain terms that those who survive until November, or whenever your next state election is, will be voting accordingly. Don’t put yourself at risk. Avoid large crowds and crowded buildings whenever possible, and encourage everyone you know to do the same.
Learning from superspreader events
While ideally, we want to prevent superspreader events moving forward, what can we learn from the ones that have already happened? A lot, as it turns out.
Superspreader events teach us more about how COVID-19 spreads, helping us paint a more accurate picture of COVID-19’s actual Ro factor. While we don’t want people to get infected, the more information we have, the better equipped we are to deal with this virus as we move forward.
Researchers are using tissue from COVID-19 victims to study precisely what the virus does to the body. By learning more about the virus’s pathogenesis, we start to understand what it attacks and where it resides in the body post-infection. With this information, we can learn how best to treat it.
Even if we’re 12 months or more away from a vaccine — and that’s the best-case scenario at this point — having a viable treatment could reduce needless deaths as we wait for a vaccine or herd immunity to protect us.
Looking toward the future
Preventing the spread of COVID-19, in many circles, is as simple as wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying home. While we can’t control the behavior of the many people who prefer to disregard their own safety and the safety of others, we can take every precaution and ensure that we stay safe throughout this unprecedented pandemic.