Trust Index: Can we count on summer heat to beat the COVID-19 pandemic?

Health experts say they need more data to determine if heat, humidity kills COVID-19

A sign in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday, June 18, 2020, asks people to maintain social distancing on the beach. People are flocking to South Carolina's beaches for vacation after being cooped up by COVID-19 for months. But the virus is taking no vacation as the state has rocketed into the top five in the country in cases divided by population. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins) (Jeffrey Collins)

All you have to do is step foot outside to know that Florida is in the throes of summer, and as temperatures rise, many wonder if cases of COVID-19 will continue to do the same.

A few months ago, when the virus had just hit the state, health experts speculated that summer heat may slow the spread of the virus.

In April, President Donald Trump said his coronavirus taskforce team had research that indicated heat and humidity may kill or slow the spread of COVID-19, saying the findings may indicate that the disease could be less contagious in summer months.

As Florida finds itself further into the summer months, cases of COVID-19 continue to skyrocket. The state reported a record-shattering number of new cases Saturday, with 9,585 cases reported in 24 hours. On Friday the state reported its second-highest number of new infections at nearly 9,000 new cases. These numbers seem to indicate that despite hot weather, the COVID-19 pandemic continues with force.

Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the state Friday and pinned the increasing caseload on young Floridians, citing the Florida Department of Health’s statistics showing the largest age group with positive cases is 25-34 years old.

DeSantis said the Sunbelt region of the country as a whole had seen more cases of COVID-19 particularly amongst young people, and that being indoors to beat the heat could be contributing to community spread.

“I think part of it may be, as it gets hotter, people are going to want to go indoors more and be in the air conditioning, and the air conditioning is not going to be your friend when it comes to ... the virus,” DeSantis said. “The virus can do much better in an enclosed air-conditioned space than they’re going to be doing in terms of outdoor activities, and so outdoors is your friend. The sunshine is your friend, the heat and humidity is your friend, so as you’re doing different things, please please keep that in mind.”

News 6 ran the governor’s claim through the Trust Index to determine if heat and humidity really can kill the coronavirus.

Dr. Francis Collins with the National Institue of Health said data has only provided hints that warm weather may slow the spread of COVID-19, but that extensive data would need to be collected to determine if this is really the case.

“There have been hints from lab experiments that increased temperature and humidity may reduce the viability of SARS-CoV-2. Meanwhile, other coronaviruses that cause less severe diseases, such as the common cold, do spread more slowly among people during the summer,” Collins wrote in a Director’s Blog for the NIH. “We’ll obviously have to wait a few months to get the data. But for now, many researchers have their doubts that the COVID-19 pandemic will enter a needed summertime lull.”

Collins said infectious disease experts have run transmission and climate modeling through sophisticated simulations to see what effect hot weather could have on COVID-19.

“This research team found that humans’ current lack of immunity to SARS-CoV-2—not the weather—will likely be a primary factor driving the continued, rapid spread of the novel coronavirus this summer and into the fall,” Collins wrote. “Less clear is how seasonal variations in the weather might modulate the spread of a new virus that the vast majority of people and their immune systems have yet to encounter.”

Emergency medicine physician Dr. Rajiv Bahl echoed the NIH’s uncertainty when considering the heat as a source for combating the coronavirus pandemic.

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“There is no doubt that the temperatures in Florida are naturally increasing as the summer approaches, however, we are also seeing an increasing number of cases throughout the state as well. The public should use caution if they believe that temperature alone will rid this virus’s transmission,” Bahl said. “People should not rely on hot weather to kill the virus. Although there are many illnesses that destruct with heat and humidity, this usually occurs in ideal situations. As all viruses are different, scientists do not know exactly if and to what extent COVID-19 is temperature-dependent in the body.”

Bahl acknowledged that some studies seemed to suggest hopeful results for the pandemic in upcoming summer months, but said that results should be taken with caution.

“There are several studies which show that the virus dies with heat on surfaces, however, this virus is not traditionally spread via surface interaction but rather person-to-person,” Bahl said.

When it comes to reports of heat killing the coronavirus or slowing its spread, you should be careful with the source of the information. The medical community needs much more research and data to definitively determine the effects of heat and humidity on the virus.

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About the Author:

Erin began her career at News 6 as an assignment editor, then became a show producer. She is now a digital storyteller as part of the Click Orlando team.