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World Health Organization weighs 'airborne precautions' after study shows coronavirus can survive in the air for hours

A new study also found the virus can stay on certain surfaces for as many as three days

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Health Organization is considering recommending "airborne precautions" for medical professionals in response to a new study that found the coronavirus can survive in the air for a few hours.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO's emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, made the announcement in a conference call with reporters Monday, CNBC reported.

"When you do an aerosol-generating procedure like in a medical care facility, you have the possibility to what we call aerosolize these particles, which means they can stay in the air a little bit longer," Kerkhove said.

"It's very important that health-care workers take additional precautions when they're working on patients and doing those procedures," she added.

Kerkhove stressed that no decision has been made and that, at this point, the WHO is "confident" in the guidance they already have in place. It is currently recommended that medical workers wear N95 masks, which filter out more than 95% of liquid and airborne particles.

Kerkhove reportedly did not discuss changing recommendations for people outside of the health care professions.

Study finds the virus can survive in air for hours

The announcement came in response to a new study conducted by the U.S. government and the National Science Foundation that found that the coronavirus can survive in the air for a few hours and on certain surfaces for as many as three days.

According to the New York Post, researchers used "a nebulizer device to put samples of the new virus into the air, imitating what might happen if an infected person coughed or made the virus airborne some other way."

They found that the virus could be detected in the air up three hours after it had been expelled. The study also showed that the virus could be detected up to four hours later on copper, up to one day later on cardboard, and up to three days later on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.

Researchers did emphasize, however, that the study does not prove that anyone has been infected by breathing in contaminated air or touching a contaminated surface.

"We're not by any way saying there is aerosolized transmission of the virus, but this work shows that the virus stays viable for long periods in those conditions, so it's theoretically possible," said study leader Neeltje van Doremalen at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

What does the CDC say?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus is mainly spread through person-to-person contact between two people who are within six feet of each other through water droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

"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," the CDC said. "But this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."

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