Scientists are urging the White House and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to set air guidelines in order to limit the risk of Americans getting sick from COVID-19, while on the job.
The coronavirus is not the same stranger scientists first met nearly a year ago. While there's still much progress to be made in understanding the virus, the way it mutates and the long-term impacts of COVID-19, experts have learned a lot about this microscopic enemy.
“It’s pretty clear the main driver is air transmission," said Dr. Michael Teng, a virologist at USF Health.
On Monday, 13 medical experts penned a letter to the White House and the CDC. They want federal standards to lessen air transmission of the virus, especially in the workplace.
“When dealing with an airborne virus you really have to think about airflow right because this is what's going to prevent us from, basically, stewing in a cloud of virus," said Teng.
Dr. Teng worries about potential high-risk settings like meatpacking plants, prisons and schools.
“Our schools are a little bit older as well so we can't really fix a lot of air conditioning systems and kids are sitting there, kind of breathing for hours on end," he said.
Last week, the CDC put out new guidelines on reopening schools but barely mentioned ventilation.
"It's not really enough," said Teng, "It's a shortcoming in their guidance.”
Teng says schools do have an advantage compared to other institutions — they can control the population of students and faculty allowed inside the building. Teng says it's also been helpful that young children do not seem to transmit the virus quite as well as adults do. He says once they get into teenage years, however, they start transmitting like adults.
Teng acknowledges the standard person will not be able to recognize good ventilation outright.
"Right, so people don't quite understand ventilation because most of us are not HVAC experts," he said pointing toward the importance of clear recommendations at the federal level.
Teng says there are steps you can take right now to lessen your risk in the workplace and you don’t necessarily need fancy equipment. The point to keep in mind is that you need to keep the air flowing. Use a ceiling fan if you have one or bring in an air purifier to your office space. Open windows and doors are great opportunities to allow fresh air inside. But Teng says when it comes to big spaces like schools or certain workplaces, we’ll need more in-depth recommendations.
It turns out even when talking air masks are key.
“Really the point here is that it's all about mask fit," he said.
That new CDC advice on double-masking is not so much about the extra layer as it is about the fit. Teng says you can up your protection, even with a sole surgical mask, by double knotting the ear loops and keeping a snug fit.
We've seen a surge of plexiglass barriers arise in workplaces across the U.S. as employers scramble to take action to protect employees. The medical experts warned in their letter, these dividers were not enough to mitigate spread.
Dr. Teng disagrees with the notion. While dividers are a good way to stop large droplets from a sneeze or a cough they are not enough for microscopic aerosols that can float in the air for hours. However, Teng believes adopting more mitigation strategies is a good thing.
“Everything that you do adds up," he said. "So the more barriers you put between now and potential transmission the better off you are.”
Best practices are needed more than ever with a slower national rollout of the vaccines and with new variants popping up across the nation.
“It shouldn’t have taken new variants to do that because -- from the very beginning, before the variants, this virus was doing a number on people," he said.
President Biden has directed OSHA to set workplace requirements, including on ventilation and masks, by mid-march.
“People don’t necessarily always think about these things, right? So, if you have guidelines from OSHA that telling you what is best practices I think more businesses would be attuned to that and say, ‘Oh, this is something that I should be doing,'" said Teng.