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Update for March 25: Pa. Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine revised the “Stay at Home” order to include Erie County. The new order now includes eight counties: Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Monroe, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties. Residents are allowed to “engage in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking or running if they maintain social distancing.”

Dr. Anita McElroy is a pediatric infectious disease physician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. She spoke with Andy Kubis for The Allegheny Front about the risks of spreading or contracting coronavirus by spending time outdoors. (The interview has been edited for clarity)

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Can you talk about the benefits of going outside? And how to weigh those with the risks?

So going outside is actually probably one of the safest things that you can do. First and foremost, it’s great to get out of the house and get some exercise since we’re all going stir crazy and it’s an excellent activity as long as you maintain distance from other people. So going outside would be great for family units. Those are people who reside in the same household. Going outside and interacting with people who are not in your household is a bad idea. 

We have heard no playdates. Can you talk about why that is important? 

You know, there’s no official rules related to this. These are all recommendations that are being made based upon the data that are available and every day we have new data that we’re learning. So I would say if you can maintain contact with just your family unit, that is absolutely the safest, most conservative approach. 

“Being out in the environment is a better place than if you were to cough or sneeze at home because the air is constantly moving in the environment.” 

So really, no hanging out with other families/people/children even if you keep your distance? 

You know, everyone is going to have to navigate these challenges as we go forward in what is acceptable risk. Right? Nothing we do in life is without risk. Everything we do is a risk-benefit analysis. And, we know that younger, healthier people are less likely to have severe disease. But we also want to make sure that those young, healthy people are not transmitting that disease and spreading it around to others. 

So it’s really important, especially in these acute times  — this really critical two to four week, six week period — that we do our best to try and stay within our family units and avoid any contact that is unnecessary with others. 

What sort of precautions should families take before heading outdoors? 

Anytime you’d go out of doors at any time of the year, even when we’re not in COVID-19 season, you would certainly want to make sure you took something to prevent ticks: wearing long sleeves and long pants and doing tick checks after you return home from a hike and also using tick repellent or bug repellent. You’d also want to make sure you brought water along.

In the context of being concerned about exposure to COVID-19, I would also add to that to carry some hand sanitizer with you in case you’re going to need to have direct contact with door knobs or handles in the community around you. 

What is known about how the virus can travel through the air and how long it lasts on the air? If someone who has the virus coughs on a hiking trail, and then another person comes along that trail several minutes later, is there a danger in transmitting the virus? 

This is another area in which we’re constantly learning new things. There are certainly individuals who’ve looked at this. Some groups have published on this. The virus when generated into an aerosol, which is a really tiny, tiny particles can sustain in air for many hours. However, when you cough or sneeze, you’re not usually generating lots of tiny particles. You’re usually generating droplets. So we don’t really know exactly how long it’s going to last in the air. Probably a limited time. And in fact, dilution is the solution. So being out in the environment is a better place than if you were to cough or sneeze at home because the air is constantly moving in the environment

So the likelihood of you having an exposure when someone wasn’t directly in front of you coughing or sneezing is very, very minimal. Hence why we say maintain six feet of distance. So even if someone did cough or sneeze six feet away from you, you’d still have some theoretical protection. Being out in the environment is a better place than if you were to cough or sneeze at home because the air is constantly moving in the environment. 

What is known about how long the virus can live on surfaces – playground equipment, wood? Are wooden playgrounds any safer? 

The question about virus on surfaces has also been answered by some groups and it can live up to days on surfaces. However, those studies are all done in a controlled lab environment and in the out-of-doors where their sun and wind and other exposures, the virus is probably not going to last as long. 

Anything that other people might touch after having coughed or sneezed into their hands are potential sources of infection. We call these artificial things that we spread pathogens back and forth – fomite [an inanimate object or substance, such as clothing, furniture, or soap, that is capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another] is the term you’ll hear many of us use. 

If someone else touches something and they have the virus on their hands because they just sneezed into their hand or they just touch their face in some way and contaminated their hand, then they can pass that onto

What’s your opinion on bike rides and bike shares? 

Bike shares have the same potential risks as any fomite, right? Again if someone coughs on their hand and uses the bike and they could deposit the virus there. If you have your own bike, that is an absolutely wonderful way to get out of the house and get some exercise. Get on your bike and bike wherever you can just maintain that six foot distance from other individuals.

“I would definitely encourage folks to not do risky stuff. So maybe if you don’t do parkour, now is not the time to start practicing parkour.”

Should children be going to grandma’s house? 

I would actually discourage you from taking your children to grandma’s house. Not because of the children, but because of grandma. So kids or any of us could have the virus and maybe not have overt symptoms, at least right away. And there’s a remote possibility of transmitting to someone who is this highly susceptible, like a grandma when you are asymptomatic. In the interest of protecting grandma, I would recommend not going to visit grandma unless grandma already lives in your home. 

It’s really difficult with the toddlers, you know, because they don’t understand what it means that you can’t hug grandma. So face time is a great way to try and allow those social interactions when you can’t have direct contact. If you can get your elderly friends and family to get set up on Facetime or some kind of video chatting scenarios it’s always good for the toddlers and for the elderly. 

Any specific advice for parents of new babies? 

Nothing different than the recommendations for all individuals – – taking your baby out for a walk once the weather permits is a perfectly fine thing. If folks approach you and want to check out your baby, I would recommend that you encourage them to stay six feet away. 

Risky outdoor behaviour should be avoided, right? 

That’s a good point. I would definitely encourage folks to not do risky stuff. So maybe if you don’t do parkour, now is not the time to start practicing parkour. 

Are you getting outside? 

I get outside as often as possible to walk my dogs, I find it’s a great way to get out and not be stuck in the house and they appreciate the exercise too. 

Any other advice, the information you want to be sure parents know and understand about the virus, specifically as it relates to being outside? 

This is a constantly evolving situation and every day we’re learning new information. So what we talk about today might be usurped by new information tomorrow. So I would do my best to try and stay abreast of the latest information that’s available. So whenever you can get outside, it’s going to be great. But if you can’t, it’s OK. 

People need to maintain their distance, especially while we’re in this critical phase. The whole goal here of social distancing is to distance ourselves from others socially. Because the exposure happens either from direct contact with someone or from contact with something that they have contaminated with their secretions —  a cough or sneeze — sort of the droplets that we produce when we do that. So the same rules apply to all, whether you’re high risk or low risk, you really at this point want to avoid exposure.

More Information

CDC Coronavirus Information


Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Coronavirus Information

Here are where coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are located in Pennsylvania.

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