• An abrupt change made on Monday to the CDC guidelines around the coronavirus and the extent to which airborne transmission affects it caused a firestorm.
  • White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci responded to some of the criticism around the CDC’s flip-flop, by first acknowledging the new information that the CDC guidelines contained briefly about the airborne transmission of COVID-19.
  • However, Fauci cautions the percentage of airborne transmission does not change the importance of the best practice he and other health experts have been urging for months — including wearing face masks and social distancing.

The CDC set off a firestorm of criticism on Monday, removing new information it had only posted to the agency’s website a few days prior which itself was tantamount to something of a bombshell. The new CDC guidelines related to the COVID-19 coronavirus made clear that airborne transmission was a primary pathway for the spread of the disease, and not merely through close-contact interactions between people wherein particles and droplets containing the virus can be exchanged.

All of a sudden, though, the agency took that new guidance down from the web, which seemingly reverts the CDC to its previous guidance that close-contact interactions are a primary way the coronavirus is transmitted. The agency has promised that it’s not being swayed by political pressure, but that didn’t stop an outcry from critics on Monday speculating that this about-face must be a result of the administration not wanting any fears about airborne transmission to get in the way of reopening the country, holding large campaign rallies, and the like. Even though there’s abundant research pointing to airborne transmission of the virus happening everywhere from churches to restaurants. So, what to make of all this? White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, not surprisingly, has an answer.

CNN‘s Dr. Sanjay Gupta put the question directly to Dr. Fauci during the Citizen by CNN conference on Tuesday, asking him what he makes about what the CDC posted and then abruptly took down. “The science seems like it’s been pretty clear on this for a while,” Gupta said. “I went back and looked at the data last night, even back going to June there was some pretty significant papers written saying this can travel and infect via aerosol. The CDC seemed to agree on Friday, then they took it down off their website yesterday.

“What’s the truth? Can this virus travel and infect people via an aerosol, kind of like smoke in the air might travel?”

You can watch Dr. Fauci’s response yourself in the clip above. Basically, he said he agrees with the CDC’s guidelines about airborne transmission of the virus (before they were changed on Monday) — albeit with a big asterisk.

The asterisk is simply that we don’t know to what degree airborne transmission is occurring. The good news, though, is that Fauci said it’s actually worthwhile to not dwell on that too much, because all of the best practices for people — washing hands, wearing masks, social-distancing, avoiding crowds — basically stays the same. And if you do those things, you provide a reasonable amount of protection for yourself, no matter to what degree airborne transmission of COVID-19 is occurring.

“The definition of what people call aerosol means that it doesn’t, because of its weight, go right down,” Fauci answered. “It can hang around for a while and re-circulate. So, when you look at what’s going on and the evidence we’ve seen so far, you can assume that a component, and we don’t know — and here’s where you’ve got to be humble enough and honest enough that we don’t know the extent to which the aerosol component is contributing the transmission.

“You can make a reasonable assumption … that some aspect of transmission can be and is by aerosol. The interesting thing about that, it doesn’t change anything that we’ve been saying. It means wear your mask, it means avoid close contact. It means avoid crowd, and … that outdoors is better than indoors.”

To that last point, Fauci brought up restaurants and the instances where it seems that some degree of “aerosol spread” indoors occurred in order to infect a certain number of restaurant patrons with the coronavirus. “Whether or not that’s 3%, 5%, 10% of the spread — we don’t know,” Fauci continued. “But in some respects, Sanjay, it doesn’t matter because the things that you want to do to avoid that — make sure there’s good ventilation when you’re indoors. Keeping the windows open. Wearing a mask indoors. When you’re outdoors, do all the things I said.

“So, rather than bending ourselves out of shape, trying to figure out what percentage it is or is not or how well it’s proven, make an assumption that some component of it is aerosol and act accordingly, which means do what we’ve been telling you to do all along. It doesn’t change what we’re doing.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.