There were a lot of rules introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic that originated during late 2019 in Wuhan, China. Some were pretty Draconian. China welded the homes of people shut and destroyed 16,000 coronavirus samples at the world's largest coronavirus lab nearby.  Some were pointless, like everyone carrying Clorox wipes around.  Most were less intrusive and at least somewhat helpful; wear a mask, stay six feet apart.

Except staying six feet apart may not have been that helpful, according to a new PNAS study. The authors don't contend that social distancing does not matter, coronavirus is in the same family as the common cold so if someone is symptomatic distance will certainly help, they mean that the number of people in a space, if masks are worn, and the level of ventilation matter more than the distance. In some cases six feet may be as unnecessary as 60. In others it could be providing a false sense of security.

Mathematicians created a formula to estimate how long an infected person entering a room would be there to create worrisome exposure. They use the size of the space, what activity it is, along with masks, etc. Their findings are concerning but provide a better metric for the next plague that will hit.

New York City was a striking example of mismanagement early on. The mayor told patrons to rush to bars because the President was going to force them to close before blaming the federal government a month later for not doing enough. The authors used their formula and instead found that New York City nursing home regulations, doing the usual 'one size fits all' thing politicians do, were unintentionally adding to the risk. With natural ventilation the Six-Foot Rule might have failed vulnerable seniors in New York City exposed to a symptomatic patient after only 17 minutes.

That's no reason to be critical of social distancing. There was a lot of confusion and people want 'rules of thumb.' With 10,000 articles on corovirus by summer of 2020, many of them epidemiology and so statistical correlation rather than hard data, a lot of confusion resulted. And there was an inspiring abundance of caution. Early claims were that the virus traveled more during sneezing, so the duration of concern was short. Then it was said the virus floats on lighter droplets and could stay suspended longer.  People changed behavior as the information changed.

Willingness to change if data changes, rather than giving up on everything if one claim hyped by corporate journalists turns out false, will be a welcome change from 2020, when if a certain political party believed a paper, it was going to get thousands of critical peer reviews, and others using the same methodology with just as unlikely conclusions got a free pass. In 2019 we wanted fewer people to become anti-vaccine, not for right-wing people to try and close ground on the left by joining the science denial side. Media and partisan framing made the pandemic worse.

Like the coronavirus pandemics of 2003 and 2012, we'll know a lot more long after it over than during, but it's good that scholars are still trying to provide the best information now. In 2017 I co-wrote a short book worrying about the next pandemic, and coronavirus was on the list, but not predicted at this magnitude. The one thing we now know is that with three of these in 17 years, it is not a question of if, but when, the next happens so better information on what tactics work and what were just feel-good fallacies will be important to keep the engine of the world running while people remain safe.