Why Singers Might Be Covid-19 Super-Spreaders
Choirs are a secret lifeblood of our country. It’s unclear when and how we’ll ever sing together again.
Every five years in July, more than 1,000 choirs gather to perform together in Tallinn, the impossibly pretty seaside capital of Estonia. As many as 35,000 choristers (oldest: 90; youngest: five) process through medieval cobblestone streets to the festival grounds, where they join in song with an audience of 85,000. The effect is what an official video calls “not merely singing… but breathing together.” From the moment I learned about this event from a friend who attended last year, it became a dream of mine to experience it.
Until, of course, it became a nightmare. It’s not just that a gathering of 120,000 people would be dangerous during a global pandemic. It’s that singing itself might be particularly dangerous. After a single (now notorious) rehearsal of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington, in early March, 45 of the 60 attendees fell ill with symptoms of Covid-19 and at least two have died. As Vanity Fair reports, scientists have traced other outbreaks to a funeral, church service, and rowdy bar, all involving enthusiastic group singing. Japanese scientists have reported outbreaks possibly tied to karaoke bars, says William Ristenpart, PhD, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Davis.
A handful of anecdotes isn’t evidence, epidemiologically speaking. And the question of whether Covid-19 is a so-called airborne disease remains hotly contested. Ristenpart is among those who believe it may be: He’s the senior author of a recent editorial in Aerosol Science and Technology hypothesizing that simply having a face-to-face conversation with an asymptomatic infected person might be enough to transmit Covid-19.
Here’s the evidence: The CDC tells us that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 chiefly spreads person-to-person via respiratory droplets that we emit when we sneeze or cough. These droplets are large enough (about 50 microns) that you can see them. But we also emit much tinier aerosol particles (as small as one micron) whenever we breathe, talk, or sing.
The louder you are, the more particles you emit and…