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What activities pose the highest risk for COVID-19? Experts weigh in

From bars to gyms, 2 experts discuss risk factors
cheers at the bar
Posted at 5:48 PM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 23:52:35-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — With California setting single-day records this week for COVID-19 cases, experts say it’s important to keep in mind that some activities carry a higher risk of transmission than others.

To gauge risk, it’s helpful to think of it like an equation, said Dr. Tyler Smith, a professor and epidemiologist at National University.

First, consider the environmental factors like whether the activity will be indoors or outdoors and the number of people likely to be present.

Then consider the likelihood of successful safety measures: whether people will wear masks, clean surfaces, and maintain six feet of distancing.

Compare those two datapoints, and you can assess the overall risk of an activity, Smith said.

A good example of the importance of this equation is the dentist’s office, our experts said.

On one hand, the environmental risk factors are high. Working in someone’s mouth with drills can aerosolize particles that carry the virus.

But dentists are likely to strictly observe public health countermeasures like personal protective equipment and sanitization, to balance out the risk equation.

“Our doctors offices and dental offices are really some of the safest places right now,” said Dr. Georgine Nanos, a family physician who specializes in epidemiology.

Dr. Smith agreed: dental offices are low risk.

The likelihood that participants will wear masks is a critical part of the safety equation, according to Dr. Nanos.

“What [the medical community] didn’t know four months ago is that wearing a mask can reduce the risk of transmission and catching COVID-19 by sometimes up to 60 percent if both people are wearing masks,” she said.

Gyms are an environment where some may try to avoid wearing a face covering during a challenging workout.

“If you can be 6 feet apart from your neighbor, that would be ideal. I wouldn’t recommend a hot yoga class where people are crowded together and not a lot of ventilation,” Dr. Nanos said.

If you can maintain distance and bring your own sanitizer, ideally in a room with high ceilings and good ventilation, Dr. Nanos grades gyms medium risk.

In the high-risk category, experts agree bars pose a particular challenge. Not only is there a chance you could encounter a large crowd indoors, alcohol could discourage social distancing efforts.

Also high risk: casinos. In addition to alcohol, casinos have an environment with a lot of touchpoints like slot machines and chips. Many also allow indoor smoking, which could complicate health matters, Dr. Nanos pointed out.

But the highest risk activity, according to both experts, is protests and rallies.

“That many people together, not distancing, rarely wearing masks and yelling,” Dr. Smith said, That to me is terrifying as a public health professional.”

They put large protests and rallies at the top because unlike other environments, there is no one in charge with a financial stake in maintaining public health countermeasures.

Dr. Smith said any of these activities have the potential to be operated safely.

“It just has to do with people realizing they have to adhere to these mandates. If so, all these things can be open. We’ll still have cases but it won’t overwhelm our healthcare system,” Dr. Smith.