Nearly 60% of new COVID-19 cases come from asymptomatic spread, CDC study shows

People who don’t show any symptoms are driving more than half of COVID-19 infections, according to a new CDC study.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control published a study that looked at coronavirus infections data and developed a model showing 59% of transmissions came from asymptomatic infected people.

"It’s one more example of how this virus is really, really insidious," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a public health professor and infectious disease researcher with USF Health.

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Dr. Unnasch said the CDC’s study underscores how hard it is to track and control the virus when you don’t know who’s infected.

"It’s really hard to identify people who are asymptomatic, don’t have any symptoms at all when they’re walking around in the community and spewing large amounts of virus and infecting people," said Unnasch.

Florida new resident cases in orange; new resident deaths in gray. Note: Deaths usually appear to be trending down because of the delay in confirming the last few days of data. Source: Fla. Dept. of Health.

Using their model, CDC researchers found 35% of the outbreaks came from people who had the virus but no symptoms yet, and 24% of the spread came from people who never developed symptoms. The study did not consider the environment for the spread or the vaccine.

"This is a really big problem because if you don’t know you’re sick and you don’t know you’re infectious, you’re much less likely to be taking serious precautions," said Unnasch.

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Florida’s surge is reaching new heights, and other parts of the country are struggling to care for patients. Scientists say the U.S. can’t follow the way of the United Kingdom.

"That’s a nightmare, that’s a Dantean hell. And the only way that we can stay out of that right now is for all of us to pull together and do what we can to block transmission of this virus," said Unnasch.

Public health experts said the CDC’s findings highlight why mask-wearing and social distancing is crucial.

"I think everyone needs to think, based on what the CDC is saying, that I could be the one spreading this virus around even though I feel perfectly fine," said Unnasch.

Public health experts said Florida is in a critical point over the next four to six weeks, so they are closely watching the numbers to see if the spread gets worse.