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It’s all in the air

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2021 - 12:00am

When the number of COVID cases soared here some weeks ago, whole households were getting infected, including the older folks who don’t even go out of the house. That’s because the virus is primarily spread via airborne transmission.

New studies are showing that our early fastidiousness about disinfecting groceries, mail, and even our clothes are not as important as wearing a tight-fitting mask, specially indoors.

Research has found that people with the virus can expel pieces of it when they exhale, talk or cough. The risk of infection is higher indoors. Outdoors, the aerosols evaporate and disperse more quickly.

Apparently, those tiny viral pieces, called microdroplets, are so small that they’re able to float in the air and potentially travel beyond the standard of six feet or even travel across an entire room. People can then inhale the minuscule viral particles and develop COVID.

How much risk of infection do we have from airborne particles? There are two major factors: how long you have been exposed and the amount of virus present in the air.

An expert suggests avoiding crowded indoor environments like bars or indoor dining, and minimizing trips to the grocery store.

Ventilation is a very important factor cited in a South Korean case.

Two diners at a South Korean restaurant were infected with COVID in a matter of minutes from a third patron who sat at least 15 feet away from them. The third patron was asymptomatic at the time.

The restaurant has no windows or ventilation system, but has two ceiling air conditioners that circulated air in the direction of the two diners.

Those infected directly faced the air flow circulated from the table of the asymptomatic patron. Other customers outside the air flow from the infected woman’s table didn’t get the virus even though they had spent more time in the restaurant with the infected diner.

It was suggested that if the restaurant had ceiling fans above every table and upper room UV or ultraviolet, the spread of the virus “could never have happened.”

The study authors suggested that governments must mandate entrepreneurs to invest in technology to make buildings and public spaces safer by installing ultra-violet germicidal systems, together with fans that push air to the top of indoor spaces.

Tong Padilla of Rockwell told me that at the Power Plant mall, they have installed UV lights in the air return so any airborne matter gets disinfected when it is recirculated. He also said that in their office buildings, they “have upgraded the aircon filters to Merv 17 (HEPA filters are anything from Merv 13 and up).”

The most dangerous indoor space is an elevator. It is a constant risk for workers and condo dwellers even if the number of riders is limited to just four or one for each corner. Building owners and managers should be required to have anti-viral (not just anti-bacterial) disinfectant sprays or UV light that goes on automatically every time an elevator is emptied of passengers.

Doctors and scientists have been calling for official guidance to acknowledge aerosol COVID transmission. Doing so will focus more attention to improve ventilation in buildings and elevators rather than improved cleaning measures.

The US CDC recently updated their guidance to acknowledge the spread of COVID-19 through the air. But the WHO is still resisting. Our DOH, as expected, is insisting their current outdated protocols are sufficient.

When the US CDC pulled back on guidance on “deep cleaning”, it correctly said that the risk [of being infected with coronavirus] from touching surfaces is low.

But up until then, many companies and organizations continued to focus on what experts derisively call “hygiene theater” and wasting resources on overcleaning surfaces.

An important article on this was recently published by The Lancet medical journal that is easily readable. This is the link: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00869-2/fulltext?fbclid=IwAR1-RnasLd10jbN5LE4Bh8ogV8Iy0Z644mHAHAInwRyWDBZ7PRBhbVxIjBg

“The most important message I think is ventilation,” one expert said. “If you must be indoors, have the windows open.”

The Lancet article suggests policy implications for our government. Actually, LGUs should probably not wait for DOH to wake up and on their own should promulgate needed new rules and guidelines to address the real danger of COVID air transmission.

Public buildings from malls, groceries, drugstores, and offices must have proper ventilation systems. I have heard of employees, like call center workers, who had to work in the office and got infected. That’s most likely through the air conditioning system.

Same problem with public transportation. Jampacked air-conditioned UVs are particularly hazardous. Requiring public transportation to open windows and ban air conditioning is necessary.

Actually, I was also concerned when I had my first COVID vaccination shot in Pasig’s mega parking building. Ventilation is poor. It would be ironic to catch the virus while trying to be protected from it. Vaccination would be better in an outdoor location under a big tent with good flow of air.

I got interested in the topic after a short grocery trip last Sunday. We were in and out of the grocery in minutes as we knew what we needed. Still, I felt unsafe.

So, I asked about their health protocols. I found the measures they are taking inadequate and out of date, sheer “hygiene theater”:

“Twice a month general disinfection of the whole store; Weekly disinfection and cleaning of equipment; Daily health monitoring of their employees; Strict implementation of IATF guidelines regarding minimum required PPEs for their customers and employees.”

They had nothing to say about their air conditioning system. When I pressed, they said they are considering deploying an air purifier/ HEPA filter. Maybe they need UV too. So, I emailed the grocery chain store’s owners and was told they will review everything.

The Lancet article concluded: “There is consistent, strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads by airborne transmission. Although other routes can contribute, we believe that the airborne route is likely to be dominant. The public health community should act accordingly and without further delay.”

The virus is in the air. If you are living in a home where family members are exposed, wearing a mask is a good idea. Outside the home, make sure your mask is secure and never take it off. Strictly social distance.

Governments can issue new rules, but in the end, you are responsible for yourself.

 

 

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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