Joel Shannon USA TODAY
More Americans are using cloth coverings to shield their noses and mouths in an effort to blunt the spread of coronavirus, but eyes — long believed to be a possible infection route — usually remain open to the air.
That’s how a high-profile infectious disease expert believes he caught the virus.
Virologist and NBC contributor Joseph Fair says he was likely infected through his eyes while on a crowded airplane flight, Fair told the Today Show. He said he was taking precautions he advises others to take, including wearing a mask.
Yet, days later, he began presenting symptoms of COVID-19 and soon needed to be hospitalized.
“You can still get this virus through your eyes … it’s the best guess I have of probably how I got it,” Fair said. He also said he expects he will soon be discharged.
Experts told USA TODAY Thursday that, while the story underscores a risk that people should take seriously during a pandemic, it isn’t one that should prompt panic.
The surface of your eye is a prime target for the virus, said Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The organization has warned for weeks that you can be infected through your eyes and has published a list of tips to help prevent that from happening.
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Contracting the virus through your eye can happen multiple ways. Perhaps most well publicized: If your hand has been contaminated with the virus, you can spread the virus by touching your face and eyes. But Steinemann said it’s also possible for airborne virus particles to infect your eye simply by coming in contact with it.
The good news: In most situations, there are easy ways to protect yourself.
“For crying out loud, don’t rub your eyes,” Steinemann said.
Social distancing — staying 6 feet or more away from other people — helps reduce the risk that airborne virus particles will come in contact with your eyes.
And a combination of hand washing and not touching your face will help prevent you from accidentally contaminating your eyes.
The case that Fair describes is a risky situation where social distancing was impossible, Dr. Jason Brinton, a ophthalmologist and and founder of St. Louis based Brinton Vision, told USA TODAY.
Masks and other precautions are not entirely effective, and air gaps in masks have particularly been shown to be a gateway to infection, Brinton said. So while it’s possible Fair caught the infection through his eye, it’s not the only explanation.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommendations for eye protection in settings where workers may be at risk of exposure, the agency has not recommended the widespread use of protective eyewear.
Neither Brinton and Steinemann felt that the average person should feel the need to wear goggles, unless they are entering a particularly high-risk environment, such as close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.