Super-spreading Hysteria: the Truth About That Deadly Choir Rehearsal

choir airborne coronavirus

By now you’ve the story of the choir group that held a rehearsal last March that became a “super-spreading” coronavirus incident, with 45 choir members becoming infected. This story has been the basis for spreading the idea that the virus is “airborne,” or easily transmitted through mere respiration without physical contact. The idea of asymptomatic individuals super-spreading the virus to others just by standing apart from them would be terrifying if it were true.

But the idea is pure myth, not factual news. It is unsupported by logic and facts, and the uncritical dissemination of the story to illustrate the purported airborne properties of the coronavirus is indicative of the fear-mongering and lack of critical analysis that had been rampant in the United States these past weeks. Below I will deconstruct the problems with the story and highlight how the uncritical acceptance of the story has been used to push an idea of viral transmission that is still not supported by scientific fact.

The Myth of the Choir’s Airborne Transmission

Let’s first be reminded of how the story of the super-spreading rehearsal has been presented. As one doctor beautifully summarized it in his warning to the public:

The Skagit Valley Chorale decided to have choir practice in the beginning of March. They did not hug. They did not shake hands. They distanced themselves from each other. All they did was sing. Within three weeks, 45 choir members had tested positive for COVID-19 and two had died. What happened? One or more of the choir members were carrying the disease unknowingly. Their singing forced their spit into an aerosol that filled the room, which infected others.

That is the myth that has been repeated over and over again: even with perfect social distancing and no physical contact, a single, group meeting resulted in 45 people instantaneously becoming infected. It is a cautionary tale, advising that no amount of faithful social distancing is sufficient to overcome the assault of the fearsome coronavirus. The story has become the default illustration of the idea that the coronavirus is easily transmitted between people from a distance without physical contact, what lay people think of as a virus being airborne (which is the sense I will be using the word in from hereon). This idea has become woven into the collective consciousness and used as the basis for promoting increasingly restrictive measures on the public that otherwise have little basis in science.

Debunking the Myth

As far as I can tell, this myth has never been closely scrutinized or challenged in any way. You do not need to be an epidemiologist or an environmental engineer to challenge this narrative. All you need is a passing acquaintance with Occam’s Razor, an understanding of all the conditions that would need to be true to make the theory plausible, and enough knowledge of human behavior to realize that the necessary assumptions are very unlikely to be true.

In order for the story of the Skagit Valley Chorale super-spreading event to serve as proof of the airborne tendency of the coronavirus, you have to eliminate the possibility that the virus was transmitted before or after the rehearsal in question, that the choir members did not have contact with each other outside of the rehearsal. A close review of the facts as presented in the original Los Angeles Times article and in the statement issued by the choir on its Facebook page clearly indicate that transmission occurred outside of choir rehearsal.

Carolynn and Jim, who ran a home remodeling business together, had been singing with the choir for 15 years and thought of it as a centering force in their lives. They had introduced the Backlunds to the choir.

As context, let’s remember that the choir is not just a performance group. It is a social network that members have participated in regularly for years. It is central to their lives. The choir’s reach into their lives extends beyond rehearsals and performances into their daily lives and relationships. I imagine they came to feel like a family and meet together socially in smaller, friend groups for singing, meals, and other activities.

It is natural for social groups such as these to develop a higher level of affection and closeness, which would make social distancing feel very difficult and unnatural. But the choir members made a concerted effort to avoid physical contact at the March 10th rehearsal:

Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes.

“It seemed like a normal rehearsal, except that choirs are huggy places,” Burdick recalled. “We were making music and trying to keep a certain distance between each other.”

As noted, the meetings of the choir are usually “huggy,” and I am doubtful that such a novel and foreign idea as social distancing would have been executed perfectly to start. It would not be surprising to learn that members continued to greet each other with hugs and handshakes upon seeing each other in the parking lot or the hallway leading to the rehearsal space.

Some versions of the story like to emphasize that the choir members all face the same direction rather than facing each other, as though that is proof that the members were never in their neighbor’s exhalation trajectories. However, it strains credibility to believe that for the entire duration of the rehearsal, no one for an instant turned their heads to look at a neighbor.

It is highly unlikely that compliance with social distancing would have immediately been 100%, but for the sake of this analysis I will credit the assumption that the choir’s execution of social distancing at the March 10th rehearsal was flawless, with not a single person engaging in the usual affectionate greetings or being in the direct trajectory of another person’s exhalation range.

The Los Angeles Times article goes on to tell us that people took their usual seats at the rehearsal:

Comstock, a soprano, and Owen, a tenor, took their usual seats beside each other in the third row. The rows toward the front and center filled up around them.

This is interesting, as it suggests that their seating arrangements at the rehearsal were not physically distanced, although in subsequent retellings in other sources the choir members were said to have had an unspecified amount of physical space per person. It bears reminding that it was not yet normalized in early March for people to maintain six feet of distance from each other, and Washington State had not yet ordered the populace to engage in social distancing. So despite the mythic retellings of this story as a paradigmatic example of social distancing, in fact the members may have been sitting their usual distance from each other. Pictures on the choir’s Facebook page illustrate their usual, rehearsal seating:

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Their usual distance is clearly not anywhere near six feet apart. It would not take forceful expulsion at such close range to transmit the virus. Their ordinary seats are close enough together that a mere whisper in your neighbor’s direction might be sufficient to transmit the virus. If, as the Los Angeles Times article states, choir members sat in their usual seating arrangement, that fact alone is enough to undermine the use of this story as an example of how extraordinarily airborne the coronavirus is, but there is more.

Carolynn Comstock and her husband, Jim Owen, carpooled to the March 10 practice from the nearby city of Anacortes with their friends Ruth and Mark Backlund.

Some choir members were carpooling to the rehearsal. So even if the rehearsal had been perfectly socially-distanced, the members were clearly creating opportunities outside the rehearsal to transmit the virus. I am in no way trying to shame these members for being social and I do not want to add insult to the tragedy they have suffered, but the fact remains that their social interactions outside of rehearsal created risks of transmission. This undermines the airborne theory because it shows that there were more probable opportunities for transmission of the virus before and after the rehearsal.

Moreover, most reports of this story glossed over the fact that there were actually two separate choir rehearsals in early March.

After much deliberation, the chorale’s board of directors issued a statement to all members prior to both the rehearsal on March 3 and the one on March 10.

The one supposed “super-spreading” rehearsal was really the second of two rehearsals that were held a week apart. That means that choir members could have been infected at the March 3rd rehearsal rather than the supposed perfectly, socially-distanced March 10th rehearsal. Additionally, there were seven days in between the two rehearsals in which members could have been transmitting the virus just by spending time with each other, no singing required.

Within days of the March 10 rehearsal, things changed dramatically. The first case in Skagit County was announced.

The pandemic situation heightened only after the March 3rd rehearsal. The state government did not start issuing social distancing orders until March 10th. Consequently, the March 3rd rehearsal was probably more similar to the choir’s usual, “huggy” rehearsals. Indeed, the turning point occurred after the March 3rd rehearsal.

On March 6, Adam Burdick, the choir’s conductor, informed the 121 members in an email that amid the “stress and strain of concerns about the virus,” practice would proceed as scheduled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. “I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he wrote.

This e-mail is further indication that the escalation in the pandemic situation occurred after the March 3rd rehearsal, suggesting that the social distancing measures taken at the March 10th rehearsal were newly adopted in response to the escalation. The first positive case of COVID-19 in Skagit County was announced on March 10, the same day as the choir’s rehearsal. By the time the second rehearsal was held, the virus was already spreading in the county and among the choir members.

By Saturday, March 14, there were six people who were feverish or otherwise not well. They were in communication with each other, and several of those people got tested.

Burdick woke up the next day, March 14, with a fever. As his temperature rose to 103, he began hearing from other choir singers.

Again, these reports of the communications between choir members after they got sick indicate that the choir members were personally close and engaged in social relationships with each other outside of the choir. They undoubtedly were communicating with each other before they got sick as well as after and could have interacted in a manner that led to transmission. The Skagit County Health Department was aware of this potential for social transmission outside of rehearsal:

The Health Department was provided with our member roster, and contacted every person in the group, regardless of whether they attended rehearsals on the 3rd and/or the 10th, and regardless of whether they were having symptoms.

The health department, understanding the basics of viral transmission, recognized that transmission would likely have occurred outside of group rehearsals as well as in them. And, in fact, the choir implicitly confirmed that social transmission of the virus occurred.

By Monday evening, 24 were ill, some of whom attended the rehearsal on March 10, some who had only attended on March 3, and some of whom did not attend either rehearsal.

Choir members who did not attend either choir rehearsal got sick. That fact alone indicates that the choir members were transmitting the virus to each other socially outside of rehearsals and thus in the ordinary fashion of close contact with others. To the extent that the choir rehearsals became spreading events, the reported facts make it clear that, contrary to the popular myth, perfect “social distance,” including the now common six-foot radius, was not maintained at the rehearsals, especially the March 3rd rehearsal that took place before the pandemic situation escalated. But the overlooked truth in the reports of this story is that there was a full week before the alleged super-spreading rehearsal on March 10 in which choir members were infectious and unknowingly transmitting the virus to each other.

The Real Story

So the true story is this: The Skagit Valley Chorale is a group in which its members formed relationships with each other that transcend the bounds of the club. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the members, like most people, continued to live their lives, including attending choir rehearsals and spending time with their friends from the choir outside of rehearsal. Unbeknownst to them, by the start of March, some members were unknowingly infected and were transmitting the virus asymptomatically. On March 3, the choir met and rehearsed as usual, which likely included being their usual “huggy” selves since social distancing had not yet been implemented. What they did not know was that members had already been infected and were spreading the virus. Given how close the members were personally, it is probable that they continued to hug, carpool, visit each others’ homes for dinner, and otherwise spend time with each other outside the choir over the following week, further increasing transmission of the virus.

Over the course of that week, the pandemic escalated in their region. On March 6, the choir’s conductor sent an e-mail advising that the March 10th rehearsal would continue as scheduled. On March 10, the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Skagit County was reported, and on March 11, Washington State began issuing orders to contain the transmission of the virus. The choir attempted to be responsive to the rapidly changing circumstances and announced the social distancing measures that would be taken at their next rehearsal, but it was too late. By the time social distancing measures were implemented, members of the choir were already infected and had been transmitting the virus to others. People who attended either one of the rehearsals and people who did not attend either rehearsal ended up sick.

The real truth is a lot less sensational and fear-inducing than the myth that has been told. The members of the choir did not transmit the virus merely through their powerful exhalations caused by their singing; they transmitted it in the same fashion as your everyday, common cold virus, by being in close, physical proximity with the people in their daily lives, which naturally included other people from their beloved choir.

Super-spreading Misinformation

Unfortunately, the apocryphal story of virus transmission by singing has now been repeated uncontested with such frequency that it has been assimilated into the American psyche as a “fact.” It has been repeated in reputable, mainstream news sources like the New York Times:

Of the 60 people who attended a March 10 practice, 45 have developed symptoms and 27 so far have tested positive, officials said. One of the group’s members has died, another has been hospitalized and others have struggled to overcome their illness.

Polly Dubbel, the communicable disease and environmental health manager at Skagit County Public Health, said the case was a disturbing example of how contagious coronavirus can be and how it can spread among groups even when no one is symptomatic.

It’s really too high risk for people to gather close together,” Ms. Dubbel said. “This just really illustrates that.”

and CNN:

“During the entire rehearsal, no one sneezed, no one coughed, no one there appeared to be sick in any way,” Carolynn Comstock told KIRO. “So now we know, oh hm, maybe it’s transmitted not just by droplets and sneezes or coughs; maybe it’s transmitted just by people talking, just by people being around each other,” Comstock said. “And then of course, if you’re singing there’s more volume to the talking, deep breathing and more volume.”

and many other news sources. It is a contemporary example of yellow journalism, using a dubious narrative to sell a sensational headline. Despite the facts to the contrary, the Skagit Valley Chorale myth has been almost the sole evidence of airborne transmission of COVID-19 in many news reports:

The Salt Lake Tribune:

Real life, though, continued to show clear cases of asymptomatic transmission via the air. Take the Skagit Valley Chorale practice in Washington, in which 60 asymptomatic singers showed up with hand sanitizer in tow on March 10. Later, 45 of them tested positive. That certainly points to respiratory and airborne infection being a major method of transmission.

The Daily Beast:

Perhaps most notoriously, 45 of the 60 members of a choir group in Washington—none of whom say they shook hands or had physical contact with the other members—tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Experts hypothesized that the forceful exhalation of air from singing released enough viral particles to infect a majority of the singers.

ScienceNews:

Aerosol particles released when people sing may have led the coronavirus to spread to 45 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington. Two died. Some choir members met for practice on March 3 and 10 before Washington state issued a stay-home order and before Skagit County had any known COVID-19 cases. Choir members reportedly kept six-foot distance from each other. But in belting out tunes, whistling and talking to one another, infected choir members may have propelled the virus into each others’ safety zones.

WNYC’s Radiolab:

SQ: She studies how diseases spread. And she says that choir anecdote, where you had people just singing together and then a bunch of them getting sick…

LM: I’ve gone through all the different scenarios in my head, and really the simplest explanation is that it was being spread through the air.

Many articles acknowledge that the scientific consensus does not support airborne transmission in the lay sense, but the Skagit Valley Chorale myth hangs over these same articles as an unanswered question. The potency of the myth, however false, is steering the discourse into a direction that is not supported by science:

The Atlantic:

Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside.

LiveScience:

Based on research on other respiratory viruses, Morris and his co-authors originally stated that aerosolized SARS-CoV-2 likely isn’t the primary driver of transmission in “everyday settings,” but could pose a danger in health care settings where specialized equipment is used. However, a recent account of members in a large choir group who tested positive for COVID-19 after rehearsal raises the possibility that aerosols may drive transmission beyond the bounds of a hospital. 

MSN:

According to the Los Angeles Times, 60 people from the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington state decided to still meet for choir practice in early March, seeing as Skagit County had not yet reported any coronavirus cases. However, just three weeks later, an incredible 45 of the members had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or were sick with related symptoms, three had been hospitalized, and two had died. The members claim that they did everything they thought would keep them safe: hand sanitizer at the door, no hugging, and keeping a certain distance between members. Could an airborne virus be the culprit?

…Responding to those criticisms, Hanan Balky, MD, assistant director-general for antimicrobial resistance at WHO, told NPR that the organization has yet to see any strong evidence suggesting that the coronavirus can be transmitted through the air.

The actual scientific consensus is that “[airborne spread] is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence.” If it was, the virus would have spread far faster in densely congested places like New York City, where masses of people were—before social distancing—crowded together in poorly ventilated subway cars and buses. And in open-air environments where a breeze would quickly disperse viral particulates (assuming in the first place those particulates are even infectious, which may not be the case), contagion is unlikely.

However, once the myth is evoked, the conversation is tainted, skewed in the direction of fearful speculation. Consequently, despite the fact that the myth is not scientific proof of anything probative, it has been used to evoke fear and to campaign for more restrictive social controls:

Radiolab again, advocating for increased social distancing:

SQ: The thing that makes the biggest difference — and like every expert I talk to reminded me of this — is just not going anywhere unless you absolutely have to. Don’t worry about 6 feet just keep that number as high as you can. And if you do have to leave, and lots of people do

LM: Just wear a mask when you go out.

Arbitrator pushing for remote hearings:

David Branson, an arbitrator and counsel based in Washington, DC, points to the tragedy that befell a US choir to warn of the risks of holding an in-person arbitration hearing during the coronavirus pandemic and argues that, for technology to be successfully used instead, institutions need to provide “office theatres” with movie-quality sound and visuals.

Doctor advocating for universal mask wearing:

One or more of the choir members were carrying the disease unknowingly. Their singing forced their spit into an aerosol that filled the room, which infected others. Masks can block this process.

Fox News editorial arguing for massive, government surveillance:

Three weeks after the rehearsal, 45 of the 60 singers were ill with COVID-19, three were hospitalized, and two had died. The health officers worked hard to identify everyone who was exposed. Because of their fast, expert and sensitive detective work, they were able to warn the people who had been exposed and protect the community….

We need to conduct contact tracing on a massive scale: identifying every new case; identifying and locating every contact of every case; testing every contact and checking them for symptoms; isolating those who are ill with COVID-19; and quarantining those who were exposed so that if they become sick they won’t infect other people.

The Corrosive Effect of Mythological “Facts”

The Skagit Valley Chorale airborne virus myth reflects the sensationalism and hysteria that has dominated public discourse in American society over the past month. Largely because of this dubious myth, many Americans now believe that the coronavirus is unusually and dangerously airborne despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the idea. It takes only the most cursory review to reveal that the story as presented is pure myth that is not supported by fact, but no journalist has questioned it.

Journalists are abandoning their critical analysis duties and failing to challenge presented narratives in favor of producing eye-catching headlines that will result in going viral and obtaining the most views. The public in turn are consuming news so passively that it too fails to question the narratives perpetuated in the media.

As a result, the social ether is filled with sensational disinformation masquerading as fact. Misinformation is repeated and super-spread without question. The fear evoked by stories like the Skagit Valley Chorale airborne myth is then used to advocate for extreme public policy measures like universal face covering mandates and mass surveillance. That fear is also used to shame people and stifle the few dissenters who do question the prevailing opinions. The consequences of the primacy of these provocative myths are a misinformed public, policies that are not based in reason or fact, and a brittle, homogenous marketplace of ideas in which the discourse is too overwhelmed by hysteria to result in reasoned arguments.

The Skagit Valley Chorale airborne myth is terrifying, but only because it highlights the disintegration in our society of an informed populace and of reasoned, public discourse, the lack of which has a corrosive effect on public policy-making.

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