Two studies published this week suggest that asymptomatic COVID-19 infections may be even more prevalent than previously thought, thus highlighting the importance of practicing social distancing measures even when one feels healthy.
The first study, which was published Wednesday by Chinese researchers in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that 42% of a sample group of COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, were asymptomatic. The study involved 78 COVID-19 positive patients who were exposed to the Hunan seafood market where the virus is believed to have originated or had close contact with patients who were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The 78 patients “were hospitalized in [the] same medical area and provided the same treatments administered by the same health care workers.” The researchers found that 33 patients (42.3%) were asymptomatic, while the remaining 45 patients showed symptoms such as fever, fatigue and a dry cough. The study also found that asymptomatic patients were more likely to be younger women in their 20s, 30s or early 40s.
The researchers also found that asymptomatic patients do not spread the disease for as long as symptomatic patients. While asymptomatic individuals spread the virus for a period of around eight days, those showing symptoms shed the virus for more than double that time: 19 days.
“This is very important because, theoretically, you can spread the infection when you’re shedding the virus because it’s so highly contagious,” Dr. Aditya Shah, an infectious disease fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not involved in the study, told NBC News.
This is not the first study to suggest high rates of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections. A new paper published in the journal Thorax this week found that a large majority of people who were aboard a cruise ship that suffered a COVID-19 outbreak and tested positive for the disease did not show any symptoms.
According to the paper, the unidentified cruise ship left Argentina in mid-March. The findings revealed that 59% of the people on board the cruise tested positive, but only 19% of those people had symptoms.
“Many people still haven’t grasped the notion that asymptomatic people can be so common, and they wonder why it is they have to wear the mask when they’re feeling well, or why they have to keep doing this social distancing stuff,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who wasn’t involved with either study, told NBC News.
“Simply exhaling can send out viral particles,” Schaffner added.
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