SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — COVID-19 wasn’t the only scary thing spreading virally over the weekend.

A Los Angeles Times article published Thursday included this startling quote from Santa Rosa native Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla:

“I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now.”

Her reason? According to the L.A. Times article, “Prather fears that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could enter coastal waters [via runoff and wastewater discharges] and transfer back into the air along the coast.”

In this hypothetical scenario, coronavirus excreted then processed in sewage treatment facilities survives and makes it to the sea where the crashing surf churns it into an aerosol that wafts along the shore where beachgoers inhale it and become infected.

So far, so scary. And Prather’s (literal) money quote was all some news sites needed to crank up the clickbait. One Bay Area site Sunday had a front page photo of the beach at Crissy Field with Golden Gate Bridge in the background over the headline: “California scientist warns people to stay away from beaches during COVID-19 pandemic.”

A Google search for “coronavirus prather beach” will quickly demonstrate how quickly a new angle on the coronavirus pandemic can propagate among media outlets in this sheltered-in-place time.

But how real is the threat of catching COVID-19 by inhaling the fresh sea breeze? On Saturday, Dr. Prather took to social media to clarify her remarks to the Times.

“Now, what about … where I said I would not go into the ocean if you paid me? That was totally taken out of context and when I first read it, I cringed,” Prather wrote in a lengthy post on her Facebook page. “I made it very clear to (the Times reporter) that SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected in the ocean or atmosphere by anyone. Much research needs to be done to understand this virus and how/if it travels through the environment. It is also a virus that has a fragile “envelope” that if disrupted by heat or water kills the virus — that is very good news.”

The main point Prather wanted to make wasn’t the danger of coronavirus blown ashore by surf spray. It was to dismiss the idea that 6 feet is some magic distance beyond which the coronavirus won’t venture.

“People infected with a virus can exhale small aerosol particles that do not settle out within 6 ft — they can float around for hours. Note these are emitted into the air without coughing,” Prather explained. “Right now, there is a large fraction of people that are infected and do not have any symptoms. So, if they are surfing or running along the beach, they could be exhaling tiny infectious aerosol particles.”

Perhaps the best takeaway from both the original Times article and Prather’s social media post is this: coronavirus, when attached to invisibly-tiny water droplets, can travel much farther than six feet, no matter where or how it gets onto those droplets or into the air.

So, to breathe a little easier when you’re outdoors or anywhere else among people, cover your face.

WEBLINKS

Is the coronavirus airborne? Experts can’t agree (Nature)

Coronvirus at beaches? Scientist says stay away (LATimes.com)

Biological Activity Found to Affect Aerosols Produced from Sea Spray (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

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