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Fate of Exhaled Droplets From Breathing and Coughing in Supermarket Checkouts and Passenger Cars


The global pandemic of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of understanding the role that exhaled droplets play in virus transmission in community settings. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) enables systematic examination of roles the exhaled droplets play in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in indoor environments. This analysis uses published exhaled droplet size distributions combined with terminal aerosol droplet size based on measured peak concentrations for SARS-CoV-2 RNA in aerosols to simulate exhaled droplet dispersion, evaporation, and deposition in a supermarket checkout area and rideshare car where close proximity with other individuals is common. Using air inlet velocity of 2 m/s in the passenger car and ASHRAE recommendations for ventilation and comfort in the supermarket, simulations demonstrate that exhaled droplets <20 μm that contain the majority of viral RNA evaporated leaving residual droplet nuclei that remain aerosolized in the air. Subsequently ~ 70% of these droplet nuclei deposited in the supermarket and the car with the reminder vented from the space. The maximum surface deposition of droplet nuclei/m2 for speaking and coughing were 2 and 819, 18 and 1387 for supermarket and car respectively. Approximately 15% of the total exhaled droplets (aerodynamic diameters 20-700 µm) were deposited on surfaces in close proximity to the individual. Due to the non-linear distribution of viral RNA across droplet sizes, however, these larger exhaled droplets that deposit on surfaces have low viral content. Maximum surface deposition of viral RNA was 70 and 1.7 × 103 virions/m2 for speaking and 2.3 × 104 and 9.3 × 104 virions/m2 for coughing in the supermarket and car respectively while the initial airborne concentration of viral RNA was 7 × 106 copies per ml. Integrating the droplet size distributions with viral load distributions, this study helps explain the apparent importance of inhalation exposures compared to surface contact observed in the pandemic.

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