Superspreaders: Could You Unknowingly Infect Hundreds — or Thousands — of People With the Coronavirus?

Without proper precautions, ‘superspreaders’ are passing COVID-19 to many people while not having a single symptom. Here’s why it’s crucial to avoid becoming one.

Imagine going to a church, a family celebration, or even a funeral and later learning that you were responsible for dozens of people getting seriously sick. Some people don’t have to imagine, because they now know they unwittingly spread the novel coronavirus far and wide, simply by attending a gathering.

Who Are Superspreaders, and Why Are They So Dangerous?

The fear of superspreaders is one reason experts are so worried about the exploding levels of virus in the United States. Some people continue to congregate in large groups, especially indoors, despite the recommendations not to do so, such as at massive house parties or religious services.

Scientists call people who infect a large number of others superspreaders. And the dangerous thing is that anyone can become one.

Who Can Become a Superspreader

As far as the experts know, no one is immune to COVID-19, and no one is immune to passing it to others, including potentially a lot of others, says Raagini Jawa, MD, MPH, an infectious-disease physician in Boston.

The possibility you could turn into a superspreader, giving the disease to dozens, hundreds, or, as those people go on to infect others, even thousands, is one reason it is critical that you follow current guidance for minimizing coronavirus infection transmission.

You May Transmit Coronavirus Before You Know You Have It

One of the most vexing problems with trying to contain COVID-19 is that people can have the virus multiplying in their body before they feel a single cough or other symptom.

“A person could be ‘viremic’ — meaning the virus is circulating in their body, for days before they even have a symptom, and theoretically they could be shedding the virus during this time,” Dr. Jawa says.

What’s more, some people can have and spread the virus and never experience any sign of it.

Scientists say that each person who has the coronavirus infects an average of one to three people, but that is merely an average. One person may infect no one else, while another could sicken dozens or more.

Reasons People Become Virus Superspreaders

Some people become superspreaders because they go to crowded places while they are unknowingly infected, and thus have an opportunity to sicken a lot of people in a short time. 

Scientists suspect that others may widely spread the disease because they emit high amounts of virus into the air when they cough, sneeze, talk loudly, and the like. This is why researchers in Argentina hypothesized in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in July 2020 that superspreaders may beget more superspreaders, because people who are exposed to a high viral load are more likely to have a “high-intensity infection,” which in turn exposes their subsequent contacts to elevated virus amounts too.

In a study at Emory University in Atlanta, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, researchers created a model to analyze infected patients in five counties in Georgia and estimated that some 2 percent of cases may have directly led to 20 percent of all infections. They also found that those infected who were younger than 60 years old were more than twice as likely to spread the virus compared with their counterparts who were older than 60.

Known Coronavirus Superspreading Events

Scientists only discover a superspreader in hindsight, when they trace an outbreak back to the person who started it. Someone could be generating a superspreading event right now, such as in a gym or church service, but they won’t be identified for a while.

Superspreading events are known to have occurred in this pandemic. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2020 states that, “Although we still have limited information on the epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), there have been multiple reports of superspreading events.”

Experts suspect a superspreader was behind these coronavirus outbreaks:

  • An evening of clubbing in South Korea After one infected man visited several nightclubs in South Korea, more than a hundred people became infected with the virus.
  • A church service in Texas Some 50 people contracted the virus after a pastor urged his congregants to once again hug each other.
  • A 40th birthday party in Westport, Connecticut Days after someone with hidden symptoms joined 50 other guests at a woman’s home to celebrate her birthday, more than a dozen people came down with the disease. Within that time, those people went to work, stores, and other parties. Westport quickly became an infection hotspot.
  • Two funerals in Albany, Georgia When a large family gathered in this rural town to say goodbye to their deceased brother, they came from Atlanta, Louisiana, Washington, DC, Hawaii, and beyond. One of the funeral goers was apparently viremic, because soon after the burial many people started coming down with COVID-19. Then another large funeral was held the following weekend, and someone spread the virus there. 

Superspreaders Are Behind Many Past Tragedies

The classic superspreader in history is Typhoid Mary, whose real name was Mary Mallon. Mary was a cook in the early 20th century who had no symptoms of the disease but was later documented to have given typhoid fever to more than 50 people, three of whom died as a result.

During the 2003 SARS epidemic in Beijing, China, the CDC report notes, one person was behind a transmission to 76 others. When MERS circulated in South Korea, a single individual infected 28 others, who subsequently gave it to more than a hundred more.

Superspreaders have also been responsible for measles outbreaks in the United States, the report says.

How to Keep Yourself From Spreading COVID-19

The two most important ways to keep yourself from spreading the coronavirus are to avoid getting the disease in the first place and, if you do get sick, to keep from contaminating others.

The CDC recommends that everyone wash hands regularly and properly, avoid touching your face, wear a cloth face cover when in public with others (leave medical grade masks for healthcare workers), and stay home except when necessary. When you must go out, maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from other people. (More distance is always better.)

“By staying home and engaging in social distancing, you minimize the risk of spreading the disease,” Jawa says.

“The way I think about it is that everyone should assume they have it, and do all they can to minimize the risk of transmitting it to others,” Jawa says.

Article first published on EveryDayHealth

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