For one doctor, the very idea of people keeping their windows closed “makes his head explode with anger.” For his part, a prominent engineer says he embarrasses his family in restaurants when he tries to get fresh air. Both are part of a growing group of experts concerned about how the Coronavirus can accumulate in poorly ventilated rooms.
His message is that authorities must emphasize the importance of outside air.
What is the problem?
According to doctor Eilir Hughes, who runs a health center in North Wales, the UK government’s slogan “hands, space, face” does not go far enough. The slogan appears on the lectern Prime Minister Boris Johnson uses in briefings, giving it massive prominence.
But Hughes, who has become known as “Dr. Fresh Air” for his campaign on the subject, thinks it should say “hands, space, face, replace”.
Hughes says that replacing the stale air in a room with fresh air from outside can greatly reduce the chances of people getting infected. Dr. Hughes says his message has attracted attention. “I tell people: ‘Give fresh air this Christmas.’
What does science say?
At the beginning of the Pandemic, authorities focused on what were assumed to be the most likely routes of infection. One is the risk of touching a contaminated surface, hence the recommendation to wash your hands frequently. The other is to receive drops that are produced when someone close coughs or sneezes, which led to the two-meter rule of social distancing and the use of masks.
But the possibility of a third route of transmission, through tiny virus particles known as aerosols that linger in the air, is now widely accepted as well. This route of contagion was recognized by UK government advisers earlier this year and later by the World Health Organization.
US authorities have even gone further, saying inhalation of droplets and aerosols is believed “to be the main route of spread of the virus.” Given this risk, hand washing, social distancing and the use of masks are not a guarantee of protection.
Do open windows really make a difference?
Shaun Fitzgerald, a professor at the Royal Academy of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, is convinced so, and has made it a personal mission to improve ventilation whenever he can. That includes trying to open windows that have been sealed or have not been maintained for years.
“I refuse to be in a place that is not well ventilated,” he says. According to Dr. Fitzgerald, research shows that a good supply of fresh air to dilute and disperse the virus can reduce the risk of infection by between 70% and 80%.
Fitzgerald supports the messages about hand washing, social distancing and face covering, but says that fresh air “is always fourth on the list, or often not there.” “My biggest concern is that with the new strain of the virus we know that keeping aerosols at a low level will be even more important and that means keeping places adequately ventilated,” says the expert.
What are the dangers?
Fitzgerald points to recent research at a restaurant in South Korea that highlighted the extent to which the virus can spread indoors. With the help of contact tracing and cameras, the scientists were able to establish how one diner was able to infect two others despite the fact that one was more than four meters away and the other more than 20 feet. Even though the three of them were only in the same room for a few minutes, that was enough for the air conditioner to carry the virus long distances.
“Aerosols can travel many meters once they are in the air,” says Fitzgerald. “Two meters away does not give you security, the only thing that does is good ventilation. If they had opened the windows of that restaurant, that could well have changed things.
Should we let the cold in?
Dr. Fitzgerald says it’s not about opening all the windows wide throughout the day, but about making sure there is a sufficient opening for fresh air. And also wrap up better. “I would recommend wearing a wool sweater rather than just a short-sleeved blouse. “But that’s what we should do anyway, to save on heating bills and reduce our energy demand, as we all do our bit to fight climate change,” says Fitzgerald. For his part, Dr. Hughes says that ventilating rooms for a few minutes several times a day will not cause a lot of heat to escape, and it will keep people safer.