Can some people spread COVID-19 more readily than others?

Are you a ‘superspreader’?

Is it true that some people spread COVID-19 more readily than others?
Is it true that some people spread COVID-19 more readily than others? (Photo provided by Baptist Health)

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As people have returned to bars in Jacksonville Beach and attending graduation parties, summer barbecues and even funerals, here and around the country, we’re hearing more and more about “superspreaders” of COVID-19 in the news. And just like that old punchline, how is it that one infected person walks into a bar, and everyone inside walks out sick?

What is a superspreader?

First things first: you have to understand what it means to be a superspreader. The idea is that, once they’re infected, some people’s bodies just produce and shed more of the virus than others. The reason for that is unknown.

“The virus replicates in some people more than others,” explained Michelle Aquino, DO, a hospitalist at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. “We aren’t sure why but they have increased concentrations of the virus in their system. When one of these individuals gets into the ‘perfect’ situation — a closely packed crowd with lots of talking, on a bus, at a concert or a bar — the virus seems to spread more and higher numbers of people get infected.”

Behavior or biology?

Mobeen Rathore, MD, is chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology for Wolfson Children’s Hospital and co-director of the Baptist Health Infection Prevention and Control Committee. He says the word “superspreader” isn’t a scientifically accepted term, and behavior may contribute to spreading infection just as much as biology.

“We have seen situations where somebody goes to church and the clergyperson and spouse unintentionally infected spread the virus to congregants, or situations like a big executive meeting where one individual may have infected 50 people, they become so-called superspreaders. But, I’m not sure they’re any different from others who are infected. It just so happens they’ve infected a lot of people [based on the circumstances],” he explained. “If I’m speaking loudly, and I’m not wearing a mask, secretions from my respiratory tract will spread to others more easily. Or, if I’m at a picnic and I’m mingling, meeting others, hugging everybody — well, I’m going to infect more people.”

Who’s most likely to superspread?

An article in The New York Times stated that 10% of infected people are responsible for 80% of new infections. Dr. Rathore says those with a more severe case of COVID-19 are likely going to have a higher viral load — the amount of virus in your bodily fluids, like respiratory droplets — and make them more likely to become superspreaders. But asymptomatic folks who go about daily life, believing they aren’t sick, could just as easily infect others.

“If you have a higher viral load, you will be shedding the virus at an increased rate. If somebody was asymptomatic, they might not spread it as much as someone with severe symptoms, but there’s a chance for the virus to spread more because of opportunity,” he said.

Can you prevent superspreading?

For Dr. Rathore and Dr. Aquino, superspreaders aren’t as much of a concern as long as everyone does their part to keep themselves and each other healthy.

“Let’s do everything we can to protect everyone from infection by staying home if you can, social distancing, wearing masks and practicing hand hygiene. And, if you’re sick, stay home.”

At Baptist Health, we want to help keep our community informed about COVID-19. For more information, visit covid19.baptistjax.com. For questions about COVID-19 symptoms, call 904.302.5050.