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We should be upgrading ventilation to combat the virus, says expert

Last Updated Nov 20, 2020 at 10:15 am MST

COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test (SARS-CoV-2) at Clinical Microbiology at SUS (Skane University Hospital) in Lund. The test is performed by healthcare professionals who take a sample from the back of the nasal wall using a swab stick. The sample is then placed in a test tube with liquid. The test result is ready in approximately 15 minutes. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT / Code 50090

CALGARY (660 NEWS) – An airflow expert says heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems need to be upgraded to combat the coronavirus.

Engineering professor Brian Fleck at the University of Alberta says we should have been doing that many months ago because many buildings, including long term care centres and many schools, do not have adequate systems.

He says we had an opportunity to do something and didn’t.

But Fleck says there’s been no hard and fast evidence about airborne virus spread, which can take years to acquire.

“However, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence and things just keep lining up to point in the direction that airborne transmission of this virus is really the source of our problem,” said Fleck.

Earlier this month, the Public Health Agency of Canada revised its guidelines to include the risk of aerosol transmission.

Fleck says if this is indeed an airborne virus, distance is irrelevant.

“The aerosols are so small that they stay in the air. Think of them just like cigarette smoke. If you leave a bar at the end of the night, back when smoking was allowed, is all the smoke laying on the floor? No, it hangs in the air essentially indefinitely for the amount of time that you spend in that space. That’s how small these aerosols are.”

He says social distancing is certainly helpful for larger droplets that would land on the ground or on someone else’s skin, but if we’ve got aerosols in the air that are microns in diameter, he says they do not effectively settle.

“To think that it wouldn’t be airborne seems kind of strange,” said Fleck.

“The way you fight that is to get more fresh air and if you don’t want a really high heating bill it means you’ve got to put a really good filter on the air and recycle the air at a higher rate.”

“We should be increasing the mechanical devices that remove COVID-19 from the air if possible. There are systems you can add that will increase filtration and will use the most well-established tool for destroying COVID viruses, ultraviolet light, which is a technology that is quite mature,” said Fleck.

He says there are affordable systems out there to filter the air but he cautions buyers to beware.

“There’s a lot of snakeskin oil out there and there’s a huge variation in the effectiveness of the products that are currently available. I certainly would say that it’s not a place you would want to cut corners.”

Fleck is one of the experts on an industry committee with the Heating Refrigeration Air Conditioning Institute (HRAI) to establish guidelines for choosing methods that are effective in eradicating the virus.

“Filters work very well and many systems have the ability to just have better filters, however, some buildings do not lend themselves to just changing the filter because the system in place can’t handle it. So you can add systems that have better filters but you really need an expert to do this as opposed to a salesperson,” said Fleck.