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Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. I'm Lateef Nassr. This is Radiolab. And before we get started today, just a quick warning. This episode contains some strong language and fact based discussions of a certain bearded man in a red suit.


Could it be.


This is our final episode of the year, which we should just get out ahead of and say this year has been awful.


Yeah, just it really sucked. It sucked hard.


I'm not going to rehash it all, obviously, but and I hate to use this phrase, but these are unprecedented times.


Several new unwanted records like every day passing the nine million mark, forcing new covid numbers, 10 million to 11 million total cases.


Hundred thousand people are in the hospital. Hospitalizations, a staggering milestone death. Three hundred thousand confirmed coronavirus related deaths in less than a year. It's terrible. So eventually we were just like, you know what, 20, 20? Fuck you, oh, deck the halls with boughs of. We're going to do a goddamn Christmas special, we're going to have fun whether we like it or not, we're going to have some fun. So today, to put a cap on this godforsaken year, we have two different stories related to the pandemic, both Christmas themed stories.


And we're going to start with with me. With you. I just want to I just want to know, is it irony? I'm not sure if it's irony that currently we have two different people talking about two different aspects of Christmas and they're both Muslim and don't celebrate Christmas. I love it.


I love it.


I was not talking about not only talking about I was last night. It was a midnight. I was texting Santa. I'm deep in this story. I'm deep.


OK, so I know we're talking about Santa, but that's really all I know.


OK, well, I think the important place to start is, of course, as always with Dr. Fauci, Dr. Anthony Fauci, reassuring kids around the world, Santa is going to be OK, who said to a couple of USA Today reporters that Santa Claus is exempt from covid-19 because of all the good qualities?


There's a lot of good energy, be pretty. That is not going to be funny any offensive to anybody.


He was just trying to get kids not to worry about Santa Claus, say that he's going to be fine. So here's the thing. Santa is not immune to covid-19. In fact, it's the opposite. You can get it. And he's very vulnerable and frankly, he's worried about it. And that's what I was texting about with him last night. Like he's worried he's going to get it. He's worried he might be B might spread it to somebody else.


Wow. So let me first say I learned about this story about Santa and covid from another journalist named Julie.


I'm Julie, where now I'm a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. What how did this even happen? What do you actually usually normally cover? I'm guessing not Christmas related things? No, I mean, that's my whole beat, right?


I just cover Santa Claus and Mall Santa. No, I actually write about the restaurant industry. And I was working on a story about winter coming and the fact that people, you know, are going to have to figure out how to sit outside in winter and has a lot of people I've seen now there's igloos and all sorts of things and heat lamps. And I thought to myself, what else happens in winter Christmas? What are the Santas doing? And then, you know, it just is what it is to be a reporter, right?


You have like a germ of an idea. Then you just go down a rabbit hole and you get paid to do that.


So and that rabbit hole eventually led her know I'm sorry to this. Our next speaker is back in August.


Santa actually gave a speech to the CDC.


Mr. Irwin, thank you. Not since the depths of the Great Depression or the darkest hours of World War Two, as so many sane and sober adults wondered aloud whether America may be facing a year without Christmas.


This is Santa Rick Irwin. He's the leader of a group of over 500 Santas called the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, which is exactly what you expect it to be.


It's it's men who look like Santa Claus and have real beards.


It's a nonprofit trade group of Santa performers with real beards as opposed to the Santa performers with that are, as they say, theatrically bearded or faux bearded or designer bearded.


So Santa Rick basically gets this slot to talk via zoom to this to to a group at the CDC called EQIP. They're the people who basically decide who gets the vaccine first this year.


Christmas will be more important to the American psyche than ever before. Our country is enduring an historic disaster trifecta and nearly all Americans endure unparalleled suffering. But promising vaccines are in phase three testing already, and remaining social restrictions may be easing by Christmas. We're asking the professional Santas and other frontline seasonal workers be granted early access to the covid-19 vaccine as soon as practicable after cure.


When released, it almost feels like it's out of a Disney movie. Like it's like CDC. We need to save Christmas. And and to do that, Santas need to be bumped up in line for the vaccine.


Americans are going to want Santa to be a Christmas 2020. I await your questions or comments. Thank you. On behalf of the voting members of the AKP centers in America. We want to thank you for your comments and really enjoyed hearing from you. Thank you again.


Thank you. And the response I really did believe in you all my life is kind of like a like a pleasant chuckle.


And that was kind of where he left it. But the next day, he got a call, oh, this is Senator Rick Erwin from a fairly high ranking official in the Trump administration, secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.


Well, hello to both of you. And just for the record, you're both on the list this year. Not nobody is saying we want to we want to work with you.


I know it's you and your colleagues are non-essential workers. I don't know what you are going to be doing. A lot of my. And when when sent Rick, like, laid out the the deal, can you kind of like, lay it out as he told it to you?


Yeah. I mean, he he basically said that they knew that the vaccines were coming. They're talking about having Santa Claus is stationed and sites all over the country in all areas and that they're going to help get the word out and get people the vaccine.


And in exchange, they'll have early access to the vaccine.


You know, here in the different cities, never having a press account. And with the vaccine available, at first, you set up a station in Southern California and I put 50 Santas in full costume in front of the cameras.


And you let me know what other cities you're operating in and I'll send Santas there.


All right. And then stand up here. And I'm in. I'm 100 percent. And he was you know, you can hear in his voice how excited he is.


I live to serve Your Holiness.


Thank you very much, because this is a big deal like he's gotten through to the most powerful administration in the country. Yeah.


Now on the call, Rick is super enthusiastic.


But then when I talk to him later about it, when he specifically you invoke the phrase operation warp speed, he told me he was actually just being nice on the phone to kind of cover up for deep down these misgivings that he had.


He said he felt like he was kind of like almost like ice skating on a knife edge because because he's just not a Trump guy.


This is the greatest mass casualty event since World War Two. And it's responsible to one team of individuals, the clown car in the in the White House. But there was a conditional that I would dance with the devil by the pale moonlight if it would save a single Santa or a single American citizen. So it's kind of a it's kind of a hard position that he's in.


But but he says yes.


And then he gets a second phone call. Yes.


How are you, Mr. Secretary? I'm good. I'm good. I'm fine. I'm fine. This time, you know, a few days later, he now he's even more enthusiastic.


They're talking about specifics.


Well, how about one Santa Eddie inoculation? You know how many Santas Caputo is like? I cannot wait to tell the president he's going to love this job.


He'll go, oh, look, look. All right.


So things are getting really real.


He took to his Facebook page and informed all the other Santa Claus is that they had gotten a deal. You know, they would be getting early access to vaccine like this is actually happening.


He's thinking we're going to save Christmas. No, no, no, no. Shut the music down. This feels like a conspiracy. And how is Santa how is Santa an essential worker? That doesn't make sense to me at all. And it's very not Christmassy in spirit at first glance.


Right? I mean, it's ridiculous. Julie, we're now from The Wall Street Journal.


Again, Santa Claus is a make believe character that lives in the North Pole.


But I actually thought that Santa Rick's arguments made a lot of sense.


Julie was like, OK, let's take their argument seriously for a second.


For one thing, she says the Santa Clauses and Misses clauses are by and large in this vulnerable population.


A lot of these Santas are old overweight, lots of them have diabetes, heart conditions.


And I think that the argument that the Santas were trying to make is, look, we're really important, especially this year, for people's happiness, that we are essential and we have really direct contact with the public. And so is it really that ridiculous to think that? The Santa Clauses of America are essential, I kind of think it is kind of ridiculous to sort that out. Let's ask like like technically what is an essential worker?


Well, that word is tricky all by itself. Who among us wants to feel they're not essential?


So we called up this woman named Kelly Moore, associate director for immunization education at the Immunization Action Coalition.


She used to serve on that CDC board that decides who gets the vaccines first.


And she basically was like, look, the essence of it is who must be exposed to the public or to others in order to do their jobs and their jobs involve the life, health or safety of our.


Other fellow citizens, so firefighters, police officers, teachers, the people you would expect, but that definition also includes all of these sort of edge cases like server at a fancy restaurant or I saw a quote from a carpenter in The New York Times was deemed essential, who said, quote, I'm essential to the pocketbooks of rich contractors and essential for spreading the virus. But that's about it. Or there was a case of Baskin Robbins employee who is dressed up like like as the mascot, like dressed up like an ice cream cone.


And the person was taking a selfie in the mirror and was like, well, you fired social worker. Like, it's a fuzzy line.


So we like having actually these broader categories. If you try to get just the right person vaccinated with each precious dose, you'll end up vaccinating people so slowly that many people will die needlessly waiting for you to figure out who the perfect recipient is.


So the essential worker box is big. And if the ice cream cone guy is in there, why not Santa's way?


So amazing. So Baskin Robbins is the Baskin Robbins ice cream scooper is an essential worker.


Depends on the state, but yeah, potentially, yes. But when you call someone an essential worker, you mean they are essential to society, right. Or to to a neighborhood?


Well, actually, Kelly says not necessarily. Part of this is also about people who don't have choices about exposing themselves to others in the way they make their living. That Baskin Robbins worker may not feel essential, but if Baskin Robbins says she needs to be at work and she has to face a line of customers every day, she could be exposed to the virus. She could also have the virus and expose people in the workplace. Oh, that's interesting.


So it's essential in both directions. Like, I am essential to people. And me seeing people is essential to me. And so therefore I am an essential worker. Right.


And according to Julie from The Wall Street Journal, that's what a lot of Santer's are looking at this year. There are places all over the country that have deemed Christmas to still be essential. They want the Santas to be working. They want them out at the malls. They want them at the holiday parades. They want them at private events. They want them to be out talking to kids and parents.


And who knows what some of these Santas, that is their livelihood. They need these parties that only come once a year. And if they miss it, they're going to be in trouble for the next 12 months.


And for some of these, Santa had a little bit of a gig earlier tonight and or for one of them, I talked to anyone this region out now, that sense of need goes even deeper.


It's a calling. We are called to it, it's but it's one of the. Most heartwarming and also heartbreaking things you could ever do. This is a long time Santa. This is my 30th year named Santa Robert.


He told me that a lot of the work he does is pro bono.


The Ronald McDonald House is a charity. We go to assisted living homes, churches. But this is also his job. Yes. And it pays quite well. So is this you can make bank as a Santa and Santa.


Robert told me, even though business is down this year, some families want nothing to do with it because of covid.


He's still getting a lot of gigs. A lot of them are outdoors. They want to do it in the daytime instead of a nighttime party. They're doing it in the daytime. They're doing it outdoors. Yeah, but I mean, I'm still able to do it. I'm still able to be Santa. But it's kind of hard because when the mask I wear is a red mask and it covers most of the face, a lot of people will ask if I could take pictures without the mask.


They're not posting pictures on social media, which is fine with me because we could all get into trouble, theoretically.


Oh, like like they're coming up to you and they're saying, can I take a picture without a mask? And what do you say to that?


I usually say, yeah, if they want to get one without a mask, I, I try to be as accommodating to people as I can.


OK, and they are also without a mask or just you're without a mask. Yeah. They, they take off the mask as well. Oh wow.


Does, does that feel scary. Does that feel dangerous. No, OK, I know, I know this is and yes, I understand this is a virus, the virus is out there. I should add.


A few days ago at a Christmas parade in Georgia, a Santa potentially exposed dozens of kids to covid Santa. Robert is not the only one who's doing this.


It's kind of hard to put it into words. This is Christmas. You know, yeah, and everybody wants it to be normal, everybody's been devastated by what's been going on all year long with the lockdown's, with work, with school. People are losing their jobs or maybe having cut back hours and they got to wear mask eight hours a day. Everybody wants a normal Christmas. I just I bring in that sense of normalcy of, hey, it's all right, let's do what we always do.


We're going to have a party. Santa is going to be here. It's just going to be like old times. And they can kind of relax. They can kind of get back into it. They can forget their troubles for. A half hour or whatever. And that's. I think very comforting to a lot of people, but it's like it's a funny thing to argue for and I get the I get the craving for it.


And yet at the same time, like, these are extremely abnormal times like and and and kind of dangerous and scary times where like like right now.


And I'm just saying like because I know we both live not so far from like in L.A., like I just saw an article this morning that said literally one person is dying in L.A. every hour in L.A. County, every 20 minutes of covid. What is the thing that feels so? I don't know that for you. It makes you say, OK, this is the scary thing that is out there, but I'm still going to do this anyway. I think well, part of it is that I need that sense of normalcy, too, but.


You know, there's a lot of things in life that have happened to people, and, yes, sometimes you can take as many precautions as you can, something bad may still happen to you.


But like but this is so clearly dangerous.


Like, I don't know, the workplace shootings, so. Oh, you worked at the post office.


Yes. The last big shooting, they had the leader post one shooting. Oh, my God. And you had that kind of. Probably has something to do with my kind of somewhat cavalier attitude, I guess you can say, because having to deal with having six your co-workers, getting their brains blown out by another former co-worker who went off the rails and yes, I knew her and oh, my God, the world doesn't stop.


The world ain't going to stop because this is happening. It's still going to go on, huh?


What if there was like the governor, like, expressly forbid it?


Would you keep going out and trying and chanting? Yes, I would. My take is a lot of people who are going to follow these rules. We're going to regret it, but what about the flip, if these parties, God forbid, happened to become one of these super spreader events, like like what would happen now wouldn't just affect the people at the party that would affect so many more people that would ripple way further out, you know what I mean?


Yeah. I don't know, you know, you're making me think a lot, you're making me think maybe I am nuts. No, I look like this is this is this is people need to know.


And that's the only way I can I can think to put it is people need Sanha and. I guess I need to be Santa and it's not going to stop with this. Tam, that is a that is a committed. And I got to say, kind of scary Santa, yeah, and now I should say that I talked to multiple Santas for this story and most of them are doing Santa online, you know, over Zoome. And they're all kinds of new websites like Ringel Jingle or whatever.


There's a lot of innervating, but there's also a lot of traditional Santas like Robert who are still doing what they do in person.


And I don't know, I like I, I think maybe we should we should vaccinate them. What?


No, they can't.


They can't bad behave themselves into being categorized as essential. No. Give some of those doses to the nurses, the teachers. Those are the people who should be getting vaccinated, not the Santas who shouldn't be out anyways.


Yeah. I mean I hear you. I hear you. But but those centers are still going out anyway.


And whatever happened to the whole Santa backroom deal with the Trump administration anyways?


Well, OK, so Santa Rick had these calls with Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary from HHS. Everything looked like it was falling into place. And then all of a sudden. Nothing, the Trump administration stopped responding, Julie, we're now from The Wall Street Journal again, they've ghosted the Santo's.


What soon becomes clear, the embattled head of communications for the agency is that that guy, Assistant Secretary Caputo at HHS, went on Facebook live and just went on a rant.


The partisan Democrats, the conjugal media and the scientists, the deep state scientists want America's sick through November.


He predicted a violent conclusion of the presidential election. If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it's going to be hard to get. And civil war. This is war.


It later came out that he had just gotten diagnosed with cancer. So it's unclear exactly what was happening with him, but they put him on medical leave.


So ultimately, it was left to us to find out what happened. You know, the Santos thought they had a deal. Do they still have a deal?


And then, you know, the word back from the government was, no, they don't. And that was how Santa learned that there weren't going to be any vaccines for Christmas this year. The real person that is. But Elmo is back for something else that I think is on a lot of kids minds and a weird twist that is keeping with our 2020 world, where often fantasy feels more powerful than facts.


A question about Santa Claus. Santa Santa. Well, the imaginary Santa.


So what I hear a little while ago, I took a trip up there to the North Pole, according to Anthony Fauci. I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself.


That Santa, he got the vaccine.


He is good to go, Santa. Oh, Christmas season, the milk and cookies. Oh, we will be back with another covid Christmas story after the break.


Pleasing to see the children, but. Hi, this is Emily and I'm calling from Toronto, Canada. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at w w w Lomborg, thanks to Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science.


Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.


Jed Latife Radiolab back with part two of our covid Christmas show, and for this part, we're bringing in a little hello.


Hey, Sakari producer Sakari, how's it going? It's going well. How are you? As you'll hear in a second, my brain is like utterly spinning with numbers.


So just to set things up back in April, as we sort of switched to doing all these dispatches, Sara did a story about the Six Feet rule, explaining the science behind this new number that it had suddenly taken over all of our lives and created these bubbles that we were living inside of. But since then, scientists have learned so much more about this virus and all of these other numbers have started to emerge.


Yeah, it's like we were literally looking at one dimension of it. And and since then, like our understanding of the disease and managing the pandemic has exploded in all of these different directions.


So we asked Sara for an update. Yup. But OK, we're going to do it like Christmas style. Um, so another 12 days of Christmas, but the 12 numbers of covid.


OK, and you know what? I'm not sure we're going to make it to 12, but, uh, it's a global pandemic that just roll with it. All right. Hit me.


OK, so maybe the place to start is three to six air changes per hour for ventilation, three to six air changes per hour for ventilation. OK, what does that mean?


Basically, that means how often in an hour does most. So more than 50 percent of the air in a space completely change out for fresh air.


Oh, like if the air is a circulatory system, it needs to completely sort of filter in and filter around and out three to six times every hour. Yes, exactly. I'm suddenly looking around my house and thinking, how often does the air in this house change?


Yeah, like most homes, the number of air changes per hour that that are currently happening is less than what. Oh, yeah. Which I did not realize and made me feel very gross. Did you have to, like, open a window.


Yeah. Basically. What happens if, uh.


Well, let's say I'm in my house in Brooklyn and I open a window just about six inches like crack at six inches. How long would it take for the wind coming in through this six inch gap to completely turn over the air in my apartment?


Well, so this one study of average houses from 2011, this a scientist named Shelly Miller told me about this, showed that opening even just one window, those six inches would make air changes happen about 30 percent faster. So, you know, going from like one and a half hour to one hour and the more windows you open and the wider you open them, the better. Interesting. This is kind of interesting.


Let's see, what else do I need to say on this? Um. Oh, so so to give you some context, like I found out that on the New York City subway, there is 18 air changes per hour, which is pretty. Oh, that's cool. Planes have like 20 air changes, which is kind of crazy. Wow. That's really this is really interesting. I find this air interesting. Mm hmm. You know what you need, Sakari?




You need to get some carollers for this, and you're still right on. The first step is going to be three to six air changes per hour for them to make up. All right.


So that's day one. OK, day to day in this segment, they call me. It gave to me. Now you do the number. It's dilation and CO2 levels of six hundred to 800 parts per million.


Verbeke OK, Gokul, what does that mean?


So I called up Lindsy my professor of Civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.


She was in our Six Feet episode and she told me that when it comes to this ventilation, air recycling stuff, it's almost impossible for the average person to know what the ventilation rate is like.


You can't just look at the air and say, oh, it's new air.


So that's why we've also talked about the carbon dioxide level, because we're all breathing out carbon dioxide.


And so if there's a ton of carbon dioxide in the air, then you can tell that, OK, ventilation is probably not very good because all this air that we're exhaling is not leaving.


And Lindsey told me that the reason this number might be better is because because you can take a sensor with you in these cost, maybe one hundred to two hundred dollars, and then you're looking for a target number that indicates that the ventilation is poor.


And I was like, I am outside. It is a windy day for her and maybe I should go and. Do you have one of these sensors? Yes, I have one, and I've been carrying it around with me, Kristie, carbon dioxide detector. What should I be looking for? I think if you see a number of six hundred parts per million or lower, that's great. Does that mean 600 parts of CO2 per million parts of everything?




So outdoors is going to be 400 parts per million. One hundred and eighty. Yes.


Have you gotten a lot of places with it? Yeah, I've taken it to the gym walking into Planet Fitness. That's six hundred and thirty five parts. But I've taken it in our car. It is going up OK. Nine seventy nine. Eighty nine.


We got up to maybe a thousand parts per million. Holy smoke.


But if we open the windows, the window and sure enough it's gone down where I haven't spent time in any restaurant so I haven't looked there after driving to that happening in New York right now. So we're going to go inside a bodega and covering by the pasta sauce around six hundred and fifteen parts per million, not the local bodega. See, this is the problem with our new pandemic reality.


It's just so many more things to measure.


I know it's like both empowering in a way if you choose to be empowered. But it's also incredibly crazy.


Like I bought a pulse oximeter and I get that thing on my thumb for like every six like every couple hours for the last six months.


Well, if you want, you could just buy an air purifier. That is one thing that multiple scientists that I talked to you recommended there, like just buy an air purifier.


Wow, that's interesting. I've always thought those things are a little bit like gimmicky. Kind of. Hmm.


Yeah, no, apparently they really help. Huh. Are we onto the next. Uh, indeed.


Indeed. Fluidness this one actually.


I mean, OK, so the third day of Christmas covid gave to me three letters.


Um. Dear, know that one, yeah, OK, so we'll continue the gallop, OK, the next day to me it gave to me, right. Sorry. OK, you know what?


I'm not even going to front this one just fell apart, in fact checking. OK, so we're just going to move right along to the next one. OK, day five, this one. Oh this one is kind of hard to do. I'm just going to let the carolers do it for me.


Gave to me maybe try whispering. Just not speaking so often.


OK. Another factor in all of this, in protecting yourself, it turns out, is volume like how loudly are you talking? Can affect the number of aerosols that come out of your mouth. Oh, so this comes from a 20 19 study. And in order to tell you about it, I'm going to take out a little decibel meter app.


So I'm about one meter away, a perfect tape measure. Okay, so let's say I am whispering, OK, can you hear me?


Yes, you can hear me. OK. So right now. I'm whispering like forty five decibels, this right here is just forty five decibels, it feels in my heart like it's like ten but wow. Forty five, ok. Forty five. Right now, when I say good morning. There's a Donna. Aerosols are flying out of my mouth. OK, but then, OK, I started at 45 and now I'm going to go up to I'm like an average 50 right now.


So this right here is 50 or like 50, actually 51, let's say. So there's a six decibel difference. OK. Fifty forty five to fifty one. And suddenly the number of aerosols that are flying out of my mouth are twice as many in number than they were, just six decibels, really. So if you just go from a whisper to barely a whisper, you're doubling the amount of aerosols. Yeah.


And let's say I go up another six decibels. Fifty seven. Yeah. Fifty seven, which is right around here, I think. Then I'm again doubling.


Oh my God. So every six decibels of loudness doubles the amount of aerosolized particles. Yeah. And then let's say I keep going and I go all the way up to 80 which is like me shouting at you. I don't know how to shout neutral in a neutral voice, but I was shouting as as we've gotten up every six decibels, we've doubled. And by the time you get to 80, I'm expelling 50 times more aerosols and droplets than I would be if I was whispering.


Isn't that crazy? That's crazy. I'm a little scared.


You've never yelled at me before. I know. Outside.


That's wild, isn't it? The lesson here, I guess, is we just need to all of us need to turn it down. We just need to whisper. Yes. Yes, exactly. So, OK, so the scientist William Risden part, but I was talking to you about this.


He said it's not just volume, though, like it's also how much you're talking. You know, obviously, if you talk more than you're putting out more aerosols into the air. And so it's not just like speak more quietly, but also like just less just do less class. That's why it gets less. Less. OK, so.


Yeah, so one more time. OK, I have just a few more.


Just to sum up really quick, um, so far we've got three to six inches per hour. Six hundred to eight hundred parts per million of CO2, three layers of masks. Then we had that number that was fake news. Whispering, not talking. That's not really a number but whatever. Fifty times and number six is 40 to 60 percent relative humidity.


Okay, so humidity turns out it's very important. So one is that, um. Is that drier air, actually, actually, I'm going to pause because there's a very loud ambulance. Yeah, this is the you hear the soundtrack of the Second Wave soundtrack of New York City in the second wave. Yeah, that's right.


Yeah. So, OK, so the idea is, let's say you don't know you're standing a few feet away from your wife and you open your mouth or of your kids and you open your mouth to say good morning. Good morning. Your children. Just imagine for a second, like, let's slow that down.


So you're like you open your mouth and you're like, go, right, OK.


And as soon as you open your mouth, there's all of these particles that are flying out of your mouth.


Yeah, some of them are bigger droplets, wet from your own saliva. Some of them are these light, you know, airy little aerosols that kind of can just like float out like as if you were breathing out smoke. And what happens is when the air is dry, there's no moisture in the air, there's no water molecules to, like, slow these aerosols down. So they're not running into any challenges. They're just like floating out into, like air with your mother, like you.


And another thing that happens is that the larger droplets that are like sort of flying out of your mouth, like catapulting almost and sometimes sinking because the air is so dry, the moisture in those droplets evaporates and those droplets then suddenly transform into lighter aerosols. That can also go farther.


I see. Interesting so that a little missiles coming in my mouth are just going zipping through the air. Exactly. Yeah, exactly.


But now imagine you're in a room and you hear the word, let's say it's your kitchen, you're doing some cooking, make eggs. There's a little bit of steam in the air and the humidity is just at that sweet spot of 40 to 60 percent.


And let's say you go up to your kids, go there like that. Why are you talking to me? All these particles fly out of your mouth.


Let's say you have covered which you know what covid looks like the ball with the ball evelia.


So that shoots out into the air and slowly like or actually very quickly becomes like enveloped in like a thin coating of water from the air.


So the humidity almost like surrounds the virus particle and causes it to like literally fall apart.


Oh, that makes sense to me. That makes sense to me because, I mean, that's kind of one of the principles of handwashing, is it. Yeah. Plus soap, water rips, rips open the membrane. So I wonder if it's getting like it's a little bit like a prewash. A pre handwash.


We keep going. Yes. Quick to get. Sure.


On the seventh day of Christmas covid gave to me Soror.


Fifteen minutes of close contact with him over twenty four hours.


OK, what does that mean. So throughout the pandemic, the CDC was saying to contact tracers you should consider someone a close contact when they've been within six feet of someone who is infected for 15 minutes consecutively. I see. But they changed it to as long as it adds up to 15 minutes, cumulatively over twenty four hours, then you're considered a close contact. And the reason that they changed it is kind of interesting. It's basically based on one person getting covid.


Are you there?


I am. Can you hear me? Yes, I can. Hi, this is Sara from Radiolab. So nice to meet you. I'm a big fan of the show.


This is not the person you're talking about. No, this is Julia Julia Pringle and I'm an epidemiologist. So Julia told me that last summer there was a group of inmates at a Vermont prison that tested positive for covid.


So that's when my team at the health department got involved.


And it was her job to track down anybody that they might have infected at the prison review, video surveillance footage, talk to staff.


And it turned out there was this one correctional officer that appeared to have gotten covid around the same time as the inmates.


But this person didn't appear to have had close contact with them, according to the CDC definition, didn't have fifteen minutes within six feet in a row.


And this was confusing because that was the rule. Fifteen consecutive minutes of contact means that you are at risk. Correct. And so what they do is they go back to the surveillance footage.


And one thing we kept noticing was this correctional officer over the course of their shift, there were multiple brief encounters.


There'd be a couple of minutes where they'd bring food to the inmates or they'd see somewhere else in the tape, like a few minutes spent giving the inmates their medication. And and Julia said that when they added up. All these little encounters, collectively, they approximated about 15 minutes of exposure, uh, and so they published a paper about this. And based on that one paper and that one correctional officer, the CDC, and changing their contact tracing definition for the entire country.




OK, so that's those are just numbers. Yeah, that's it. I think those are all the numbers I have. OK, but I guess there's just one last thing that I want to tell you about. You know, like we were saying before, these numbers obviously can be super helpful in certain ways. However, they are also extremely paralyzing and could potentially be really debilitating. Yeah.


And so so one person I talked to, this guy named Martin Bestand at MIT, who's like a professor in the engineering department, I believe he actually made like an online calculator, essentially, which I thought was really cool. I talked to him about it. And and it's this basically. Yeah. This this website you can go to where a lot of these factors that we've talked about, you can plug in different variables for like whatever room you expect to find yourself in, plug in the humidity levels, plug in.


Will you be wearing a mask or not? What kind of asking you to be wearing, you know, ventilation? Are you going to be talking or you be exercising? You know, how big is the room? You can plug all of that in and it'll give you a recommendation. And so it'll tell you then how many people can safely be in that room for how long. So so, for example, I was like I'm in in the interview with him and I plugged in.


Let's say you're in the average classroom and everyone is sitting and wearing masks and talking, OK? And and it it spits out this number that is basically like, OK, 50 people can be safely be in this room for seven hours, which is like a very surprising finding. Right. Surprising. Is that a real number that you just said? Yeah. Yeah. That's a real number. Yeah. Oh, shoot.


That's very heartening to hear. Right. So and it's sort of this, you know, he finds himself in this interesting spot where on the one hand he's like, you know, receiving backlash because it's like, OK, you're enabling people to then go do stuff and like maybe be unsafe. But his whole argument is like, well, you know, like I don't know if there's a way to navigate all of these variables, you know, and and to move beyond just the like.


Don't see anyone endorse ever, you know, like if there's a way to, like, account for all of these different factors in a way that makes us safer in a way that helps us keep classrooms open in a way that helps us keep other facets of our lives going, then like why wouldn't you want to do that? And so he was telling me he's like heard from people, like people emailing him that have used the online tool and have been like I was able to keep my dance studio open because I like plugged in the numbers and like, it seemed to make sense.


And so I had this many people in and we were really safe and, um.


Yeah, wow. That's that's cool to me, right? Yeah. You know, it's funny. It's like that's uh. I mean, you know what I find myself wondering about which I don't know if it's a helpful argument I'm having in my head, but. I mean, I just I find that way of thinking very liberating. Yes. I mean, what we all have to do right now is.


We kind of have to be poker players. We have to sort of understand the odds and the risks involved and. Make decisions in the face of those risks, which is what a poker player does. They make a bet when they don't know what's going to happen, but they can't not bet. Right.


So we have to sort of do that ourselves in the way we behave and where we choose to go and whether we choose to put our kids in school and all those things, they're all kind of bets and sort of like it's sort of like right now we're all playing poker with, like, a really poor understanding of how probability works, right?




And less. And the question is, do we educate ourselves on probability and then perhaps maybe become riskier poker players? Or do we just keep playing with, like, our really crude understanding, you know?


Right. And then there is a sort of a public messaging layer on top of that, which is can we afford nuance right now? Maybe we just need to say to people, wear a mask and stay indoors and don't see anybody go slightly crazy and and have some serious mental health blowback. But you'll be safe that way. I mean, we could say that to people, which I think is probably. More effective, but it also creates this whole, like, politicization thing, which we won't we to get into.


But I like the online tool. I suddenly want it to be like a little drone that's flying over my head.


And it just watches me as I walk in and out of spaces.


And then it gives me it gives me like a risk rating for every single magic device that was carry through all these numbers. That is a killer gift. Yeah.


Well, uh, thank you, Sakari. You're welcome.


And I should say thank you to my carollers, Sue Nelson, Elizabeth and Sandy, Latrelle and Noah and Brian Dolphin on Christmas Day, to me, the long awaited seei one thing that made me cry. All right.


Well uh I guess, I guess this is, this is us trying to slip out the door slip out of the year. Yeah. Oh.


Special thanks to Akiko Iwasaki, Martin Besant, Julia Pringle, Lindsay Ma, Shelley Miller, William Risden part Bill Nye, USA Today, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.


I'm Jad Abumrad. Unless of Nassr, hope you have happy, healthy emphasis on the healthy holidays in New Year. And yeah, we'll check you on the other side. Thanks for listening. This is Damien calling from Hobart, Tasmania. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Sean Miller. And our co-host Dylan Case is the director of Sound Design. She's elected our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Rebecca Breslau, Rachel Kucik, David Gabal, Matt Quilty, Tobin Lo, any McEuen, Sakari Arion whack at Walters' and Molly Webster with help from Cima Alii, Sheryl Sandberg and Johnny Melon's.


A fact checker is Michelle Harris.