By Dr. Greg S. Whiteley
From the August 2021 Issue
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a “Global Pandemic.” By that time, the SARS-CoV-2 virus had spread to more than 110 countries and had recorded around 120,000 cases. It was the elderly and the healthcare workers who took the brunt of the first wave of infections globally. In the space of just three months, from December 2019 through February 2020, the virus alert moved from a warning level of something new in China to a full-blown pandemic affecting the entire planet. Will March 11, 2020 be “a day which will live in infamy”?
History will account for the initial virus origins, but the real tale is the virus itself. It is a rapidly mutating, easily spread, environmentally persistent virus that has now become a normal part of the human experience. The continued evolution of this virus means vaccines will also require regular modification to match the latest variants.
Initial reports on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 focused on transmission via both aerosols and fomites (surfaces). The germophobes across the world went nearly spare with fear, and the data seemed to justify these concerns. This led inevitably to what became described as “Hygiene Theatre” as people dressed in space suits with goggles and supply air sprayed and fogged disinfectants over every possible surface.
This entire process was made even more complex by the mixed messages that appeared from non-appointed experts in every corner of the mass media. Politicians responded to the community alarm and reiterated demands for a quick fix. A swath of non-scientific statements from Presidents, Prime Ministers, and religious leaders collided to confuse everyone on what were the real risks of infection.
Epidemiologists were largely unheard of before this pandemic. Now the title is proudly displayed by anyone even closely associated with disease control and analysis.
And then there is the science on COVID-19. Scientists tend to prefer a closed system of research that calmly plans experiments or surveys, collects results, assesses evidence, publishes data, and then brawl over how best to spend the limited research funding that is justified on the findings. This process was not an option in the case of COVID-19.
So, with this pandemic whirlwind, what do we now really know about SARS-CoV-2 and the spread of illness from this virus? And what are the ongoing implications of its introduction into our species and society?
First, we know that as this virus has evolved, it is now primarily spread via aerosols. It remains quite environmentally persistent, but indirect contact as a means of transmission is a long way back in second place. As an aerosol spreader, the COVID-19 virus favors indoor settings, and infections will be seasonally driven like other cold and flu-like viruses. The closer together we gather, the more likely it is that we will be infected and pass on the virus to others.
Second, we know that steps can be taken to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Options such as mask wearing, better ventilation (including appropriate filtration processes), and regular cleaning of high-touch objects and surfaces are all useful steps to limit its spread.
But when the pandemic at last comes to an end, how will it impact our hygiene-mitigation strategies? To this question, here are a couple of key points.
First, there is no doubt that this pandemic has initiated or rediscovered the human need for good hygiene. Washing hands and cleaning surfaces and personal spaces are probably permanent changes we have adopted. This is a good thing not just because of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but because we will continue to live with infectious microbes.
Second, as we dismantle temperature checks, let us not forget the critical importance of routine cleaning and disinfection on surfaces and the necessity of clean air. Seemingly harmless microbes at the wrong time and in the wrong place can transform into superbugs. Dust and other airborne contaminants that contain mold, bacteria and, yes, viruses, such that our indoor environments are constantly interacting and evolving, similar to the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As facility executives, it’s critical to stay current with the science to guide best practices.
In November, the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ) and the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) will hold the Healthy Buildings 2021-America conference in Honolulu. At the conference, researchers, practitioners and building executives will share new research and discuss findings that relate to air quality, ventilation, cleaning, and mitigation strategies during the age of COVID and beyond. These are always important issues, but now in particular we recognize the importance of surface and air hygiene practices on our health and well-being.
Facility executives know the importance of effective cleaning and quality HVAC systems for enhancing the health and well-being of the people who live, work and play in indoor environments. The pandemic has heightened awareness of risk factors among all of us who share indoor spaces.
Whiteley, Ph.D. is Chairman of Whiteley Corporation in Australia, and a keynote speaker at the upcoming Healthy Buildings 2021-America conference scheduled for Nov. 9-11, 2021 in Honolulu, HI.
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