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What We Should Learn From The White House Coronavirus Cluster

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

So there are many questions about where President Trump got infected and by whom. When reporters at Walter Reed Medical Center asked about that yesterday, White House physician Sean Conley refused to answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN CONLEY: Not going to go into that. As far as his care, it's irrelevant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there have been many occasions when scores of people gathered, unmasked and without social distancing, near the president, including the White House event last weekend for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. We're joined now by Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill and writer for The Atlantic who says we should actually be looking at how COVID-19 spreads in clusters. She joins us now.

Good morning. Hello. Zeynep Tufekci, are you there?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Yes, I am. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. What do you see when you look at how many people around Trump have tested positive the last several days?

TUFEKCI: I see a cluster. I see a cluster that is arguably a superspreading cluster, depending on how many people eventually get infected. And in fact, that's a really important thing because this virus operates like this. It is surprisingly non-contagious most of the time. But then when it does spread, it spreads in these big clusters. This is what we see from research all over the world.

And I think this is part of the reason the White House got this false confidence because they kept flatting - flaunting the rules. They kept, like, not wearing masks, and they kept sort of gathering indoors. And they do do this test - that's kind of this rapid test, but that's not as reliable. You can get a false negative. You might not have just peaked in your viral load yet. So they just relied only on that and did not follow the rest of the rules.

And we see from the party they had for the Supreme Court nomination - they had indoor receptions as well. We know that leading up to the preparation for the debate, they were in a conference room indoors the whole time. And the Senate has been operating indoors as well.

And that's another thing that this virus does - is that, despite we've been told six feet, which is, yes, important - but it's not some magic number because this virus can spread through the air. It has short-range aerosols, which means it's airborne. So indoors six feet is not enough. You can't just sort of be six feet away if you're in a - especially a poorly ventilated place for a long time. So that's quite likely how some of the other senators we're seeing now may have gotten - they may have been in a room with their colleagues. And just being six doors...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

TUFEKCI: ...Six feet is not enough. We don't have the right mental model of the spread, unfortunately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you've written about this, and there's been quite a few studies that show that, yes, the way that we understand that the coronavirus disperses is a little bit different now. Tell us the role of superspreaders and how the virus can transmit to large numbers of people at once.

TUFEKCI: I will. For example, if you look at some of the countries that got hit early on, you see that they had a superspreading event. For example, in South Korea, one woman linked to a church cluster - she is responsible for 5,000 infections, which is a mind-blowing number, but that's how it happened. On the other hand, the studies show that sometimes 70- to 80% of the infected people don't transmit onwards at all.

So, yes, it's a really imbalanced behavior. So you look and you don't see the transmission, and you're thinking, oh, this is fine. This is not very contagious. This is not transmitting because, yes, 70-, 80% of the time, nothing's happening. And then, boom, you know, you get a superspreading cluster, and you get this enormous number of people. And it's almost always indoors. It's almost always if the ventilation is poor and the people are not wearing masks. So while it's a little scary, I also find it a little encouraging in that we have a very specific set of guidelines on what to really avoid, which means indoors. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned venue, ventilation and vocalization. And those are the three Vs, you call them.

TUFEKCI: Yes. Yeah. And in fact, this is the speaking inside - like, in Japan, which is a very successful country, they ask people not to speak loudly in the subway. And also - in this country, we don't do this, but the speaker should keep their mask on 'cause they're aerosolizing, right? They're the ones that are actually the ones that need to keep the mask on from infecting everybody else. But we keep seeing it even with the highest levels of our government. We had our two presidential candidates and - you know, President Trump speaking really loudly just 12 feet away from the other presidential candidate. And from a health-precaution-wise, that's just not OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We only have a few seconds left, but I'm just wondering, do we know anything about what makes someone a superspreader, why certain people seem to be more highly contagious?

TUFEKCI: There's probably a biological variation in that some people are super-emitters, but we don't really know how to test for that. It's - also seems that the day before people have their symptoms - that's when they're most infectious, which is a little worrisome because before you're - even know you're ill or you just start having maybe mild symptoms you can't make sense of, that's when people are most infectious. But the last component of it is the setting, the venue - indoors, poorly ventilated, en masse. So it's the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time. It comes together, and that's how we get superspreading events.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Zeynep Tufekci. She teaches at UNC and writes for The Atlantic.

Thank you very much.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL'S "UNDER YOUR MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.