ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A new study from the University of Central Florida suggests that wearing a mask and having a good ventilation system are more important than social distancing when it comes to slowing the airborne spread of COVID-19.
The results of the research, published recently in the journal Physics of Fluids, could be a key factor in allowing more people in classroom and other indoor areas.
“The research is important as it provides guidance on how we are understanding safety in indoor environments,” said Michael Kinzel, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and study co-author.
“The study finds that aerosol transmission routes do not display a need for six feet social distancing when masks are mandated,” Kinzel said. “These results highlight that with masks, transmission probability does not decrease with increased physical distancing, which emphasizes how mask mandates may be key to increasing capacity in schools and other places.”
The study itself created a computer model of a classroom with students and a teacher, then modeled airflow and disease transmission and calculated airborne-driven transmission risk. The classroom size was based on roughly 700 square foot classroom, with 9 foot ceilings.
Researchers examined the classroom using two scenarios, a ventilated classroom and an unventilated one, as well as two models used to determine indoor transmission probability and understanding aerodynamics.
According to the study, masks were shown to be beneficial by preventing direct exposure of aerosols. Additionally, a ventilation system in combination with a good air filter reduced the infection risk by 40 to 50% compared to a classroom with no ventilation.
These results corroborate recent guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend reducing social distancing in elementary schools from six to three feet when mask use is universal, Kinzel said.
“If we compare infection probabilities when wearing masks, three feet of social distancing did not indicate an increase in infection probability with respect to six feet, which may provide evidence for schools and other businesses to safely operate through the rest of the pandemic,” Kinzel said. “The results suggest exactly what the CDC is doing, that ventilation systems and mask usage are most important for preventing transmission and that social distancing would be the first thing to relax,” the researcher says.
The research is part of a larger effort to control airborne disease transmission and better understand factors related to being a super-spreader. The work is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.