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Health, Science, Environment

Curious Louis: We Answer Your Questions About A Winter With The Coronavirus

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David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis region continues to see a rising number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Doctors say they worry that winter and the holiday season will bring people indoors and spread the virus faster.

But scientists say they are learning more about the virus and how people can stay safe. In this edition of Curious Louis, St. Louis Public Radio reporters Sarah Fentem and Shahla Farzan talked to experts about what’s in store for the first winter of the coronavirus pandemic.

There are major holidays on the horizon — but is it safe for people to celebrate together? What should families be considering when they plan to visit?

The bottom line is that the more people travel and visit with each other, the more risk they’re exposing themselves to. But health officials say there are ways to stay safer when you visit family and friends.

First, it’s safer to stay home during the holidays. All travel increases risk of contracting the virus and spreading it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because the coronavirus has an incubation period of up to two weeks, someone could get infected while traveling and spread it to their loved ones.

If you do travel, keep your distance from others. That means that driving and making limited stops at rest areas is probably safer than flying (and exposing yourself to large holiday crowds at the airport).

If flying is your only option, experts say avoiding areas of the airport where people are congregating, wearing a well-fitting mask and washing hands frequently could reduce your risk.

How a family celebrates also can affect the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus, said Dr. Amruta Padhye, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri.

Instead of a big family gathering, people should consider a smaller group get-together, either outside or indoors with open windows for extra airflow, she said.

“I think the more the people, the more the risk, and the smaller the place, again, the more the risk,” she said. “If the weather permits, having good ventilation in the household, we know that also helps in some ways to mitigate the transmission risk.”

If possible, family members who plan on getting together could get tested or quarantine for two weeks ahead of time to make sure they’re coronavirus-free.

How close are scientists to making a coronavirus vaccine, and will it protect a person 100% from getting the virus?

Even though there are dozens of vaccines being tested around the world, the federal government is focusing on six candidates as part of its Operation Warp Speed initiative, which fast-tracks vaccine and drug developments for the coronavirus. Pharmaceutical giants have developed the vaccines with federal money, and now they’re being tested in humans — including at sites at St. Louis University and Washington University.

SLU researchers have just finished enrolling participants for one clinical trial for the Massachusetts-based company Moderna, and Wash U recently started enrollment in tests for a vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.

But how fast a vaccine is available is dependent on a lot of things, including how many people in the clinical trials actually get sick, said Dr. Daniel Hoft, director of SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development.

Scientists can’t ethically give participants the virus, Hoft said, so they’re waiting for people in the trial to catch it. The more people get sick, the more data the scientists have.

“Let’s just say they saw 200 infections in the first month," he said. “By December or January, it’s possible there will be enough events to have the statistical power to determine whether or not the vaccine is significantly better than the placebo.”

If the results are promising, the first vaccines could be approved by winter, he said. But that’s optimistic, and it will likely be longer. However, Hoft is confident that we’ll see one or more make their way through trials by next year.

If and when the Food and Drug Administration approves one or more of these vaccines for use, it will take a while for the public to receive a dose.

The good news is that the Operation Warp Speed companies are already manufacturing vaccines en masse. As soon as federal officials approve one, it will be ready to be shipped out.

Missouri state health officials have already written up a plan that distributes vaccine doses to health care workers and high-risk patients first.

As for effectiveness, most experts say it’s unlikely that early vaccines will be even 70% effective. But even a vaccine that protects 50 to 60 percent or people from getting seriously ill will significantly reduce the number of people dying.

Do we know how the coronavirus travels through air systems? If people are in an office building, could they get the virus through shared air, even if they’re in separate rooms?

Scientists now know that the coronavirus can travel through the air for long periods of time. Spit droplets from sick people can evaporate and stay airborne longer than experts originally thought in the spring.

Similar viruses, like SARS, can travel through air ducts and get people sick, said Pratim Biswas, a professor at Washington University’s School of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering. It would make sense that the coronavirus could do this too, he said.

But that’s probably not what you should be worried about, he added.

We know that the closer someone is to a sick person, the more likely they are to catch the virus, Biswas said. So even if viral particles do travel through ventilation systems, it’s probably not going to be enough of a dose to get someone sick.

“The further the distance, the risk goes down,” he said. “So through the ventilation duct, even in a normal household, I would say it is unlikely, but of course you can’t completely rule it out.”

Instead of worrying about phantom coronavirus particles drifting through HVAC systems, people should stay focused on meeting up outside or in well-ventilated rooms, wearing a mask and staying six feet away from others, he said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.