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Scientists recommend social distancing 20 feet as winter approaches

A man sneezes into a tissue on March 14, 2020. (Photo Illustration/Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Forget the ruler and take out the meter stick because the days of six feet of social distancing may be behind us. Instead of six feet, scientists are urging people to stay more than triple that distance apart as temperatures drop. 

According to a recent article published in NANO Letters, scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara warn that as winter approaches, the transmission of the coronavirus will become more robust because infectious respiratory droplets are able to travel farther in lower temperatures. 

In a laboratory experiment, researchers assessed droplets emitted by speech, breathing and while sneezing either into a tissue or elbow in temperatures ranging from 32 degrees to 104 degrees fahrenheit and between zero to 92% humidity. 

Results showed the droplets traveled through the air three times farther than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines in low-temperature, high humidity environments.

“We found that in most situations, respiratory droplets travel longer distances than the 6-foot social distance recommended by the CDC,” said study author Yangying Zhu in a news release. “This effect is increased in the cooler and more humid environments to distances of up to 6 meters (19.7 feet) before falling to the ground…”

In addition to being able to travel farther distances, Zhu says, some COVID-19 droplets stayed infectious for more than 24 hours in these conditions. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.