Above, over, or beyond — that is what “super” means in its native tongue, Latin. No judgment is involved. A thing can be super good or super bad. Used as a prefix, super is a standard of medical lingo, and the COVID-19 epidemic has provided several opportunities for it to be used. For instance, what is a superspreader? First, we need to know the normal rates of transmission for any communicable disease.
For The New Yorker, Atul Gawande explained the meaning of the reproductive ratio, or R0 (pronounced r-naught, which means zero), using the familiar disease of measles. At a school where 30% of the students had not been vaccinated, “each infected child spread the virus to, on average, eighteen others.” So the R0 was 18. Here is where it gets scary:
By comparison, a person with covid-19 will infect, on average, only two to three others… But an R0 of two or three is more than enough to cause a pandemic. [A] single unchecked case can lead, over two months, to more than twenty thousand infections and a hundred deaths.
If that sounds extreme, think back. Have you ever known a person with badly-fitting dentures and, when the lighting was just right, understood how much they sprayed? Robert Roy Britt wrote,
The number of respiratory particles sprayed out while talking, most of them not noticeable to the human eye, can range from one to 50 per second, depending largely on how loud a person talks… But some “superemitters,” for mysterious reasons, emit 10 times more than others while conversing…
This is useful to bear in mind when thinking about the importance of face coverings. Regarding contagion events that happened just three months ago, Britt reports on a fateful Bible study group attended by 92 people, including a man who had contracted COVID-19, but not yet developed any symptoms. Then 35 people caught it from him, and 26 people in the larger community caught it from them.
The sponsors of a cruise to Antarctica took the temperatures of more than 2,000 passengers before they embarked on the journey. The sly coronavirus slipped in anyway, and 59% of the passengers had it. Since the R0 of the disease has seemed to be so relatively low, these massive infections seem statistically unlikely.
But apparently, one exceptional person can affect dozens or hundreds of others. Some experts believe that 80% of the COVID-19 cases are instigated by 20% (or maybe even just 10%) of infectious individuals, who are known as “superspreaders.”
You can’t always leave the kids at home
The nature of the event matters, too. If it involves shouting or singing, like a church service, the danger increases. If it involves crowds and toxic gases, like a demonstration attacked by police, the danger increases a lot.
Tear gas has triggered choking, bronchitis, blistering, and lingering lung damage. People with hypertension, emphysema, or coronary artery disease can be very severely affected. One gas used is 2-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, or CS for short. It can cause the lungs to swell and bleed.
For Forbes.com, Judy Stone wrote:
CS does much of its nasty work by binding to a pain receptor named TRPA1, located all over our bodies — in our respiratory, GI tracts and skin. CS entering buildings contaminates furniture […] resulting in prolonged contact and irritation. Children, with developing lungs and immune systems, are at special risk…
Stone notes that tear gas and pepper spray both increase the susceptibility of humans to COVID-19. She goes on to say,
The chemicals destroy tissue, making them more susceptible to infection. Also, if someone already has an infection, the violent coughing that is caused by these noxious agents will undoubtedly cause them to spew secretions and may well cause super spreading events…
In an ideal world, there would not be many children on a cruise ship or in a protest crowd. But of course kids come in contact with adults who might be.
(To be continued…)
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reentry,” NewYorker.com, 05/13/20
Source: “The Science of Superspreaders,” Medium.com, 06/04/20
Source: “Tear Gas And Pepper Spray Can Maim, Kill And Spread Coronavirus,” Forbes.com, 06/08/20
Image by Ben/CC BY-SA 2.0