Dr. Joseph Fair, a virologist and epidemiologist who has been hospitalized with the coronavirus despite being in good health and taking precautions, said Thursday that he believes he contracted the virus through his eyes on a crowded flight.
Fair, 42, an NBC News contributor who has responded to multiple outbreaks around the world, got sick about three days after a flight to his home in New Orleans.
“I had a mask on, I had gloves on, I did my normal wipes routine … but obviously, you can still get it through your eyes,” Fair said on the “TODAY” show from his hospital bed. “And, of course, I wasn’t wearing goggles on the flight.
“That’s one of the three known routes of getting this infection that we just don’t pay a lot of attention to. We tend to pay attention to the nose and mouth, because that is the most common route,” he said. “But you know, droplets landing on your eyes are just as infectious.”
He said that the airline “had us packed in like sardines” and that, “instinctively, I probably should have gotten off.” But he didn’t.
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Because Fair had protected his nose and his mouth during the flight, hadn’t gone anywhere but to his home after the flight and starting feeling ill a few days later, he suspects that he contracted the virus through his eyes on the plane. “It’s the best guess I could give,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus spreads primarily “from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”
“These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs,” according to the CDC. “The virus does not spread easily in other ways.”
However, “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” the CDC says. “This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus.”
Fair said, “I think there’s so much we don’t know about it.”
Fair initially just had flu-like symptoms that started with a loss of appetite, so he didn’t immediately go to the hospital in an effort not to overwhelm the system. Eventually, he said, he could take in only 25 percent of the oxygen he was trying to breathe, and he called an ambulance.
He asked not to be intubated but to be given oxygen, instead. Within a few days, he started responding to the oxygen and the medications he was taking for lung infections that came with the virus.
On Wednesday night, he was no longer in critical condition.
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Fair has tested negative for COVID-19 four times, but he said that’s not surprising, because he waited a while to go to the hospital — so the virus may not be detectable — and the “tests are far and away not 100 percent accurate.”
Fair, a runner who said he was at “the peak of health in my life,” had a warning for healthy, younger people who might feel invincible: “If it can take me down, it can take anybody down.”
“You don’t want to have it, that’s all I have to tell you,” he said. And “you don’t want to spread it on to anyone that is at any point at a high risk, because, you know, looking at me, healthy and exercising and all of that, I can’t imagine being someone with a high-risk condition.”
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.