Despite concern over increasing cases of the BA.2 Omicron strain of COVID-19, many Americans – vaccinated or not – have stopped wearing masks and practicing social distancing. But there’s still one big way to protect employees: ventilation.
“A growing coalition of epidemiologists and aerosol scientists say that improved ventilation could be a powerful tool against the coronavirus – if businesses are willing to invest the money,” according to an NPR report.
Feds encourage voluntary participation
The White House launched a voluntary initiative in March encouraging schools and employers to assess and improve their ventilation.
State and local governments received a total of $350 billion for “a range of community-level pandemic recovery efforts, including ventilation and filtration” as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Private employers were also encouraged to voluntarily improve their indoor air quality, with the White House providing guidelines on best practices.
Upgrades beneficial in keeping disease out of workplace
Attention to indoor air quality will provide gains against COVID-19, other airborne diseases and respiratory problems related to allergies, according to experts from Harvard University and Virginia Tech who spoke with NPR.
Upgrades to ventilation systems have been associated with lower infection rates at Georgia elementary schools. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) simulation found a combination of mask-wearing and use of portable air cleaners with HEPA filters could reduce COVID-19 transmission by 90%.
Research has shown that exchanging air five times an hour cuts the risk of COVID-19 transmission in half, but most buildings today only do this once or twice an hour.
While federal agencies like OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have some standards on air quality, those are limited. Building codes on the local level also have certain standards, but again, those don’t mandate the type of circulation required to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
Changes can be expensive
And while some companies have made changes to their ventilation systems, those have come with a cost as those changes require more energy use.
“You spend more because your heat is coming on more often in order to warm up the outdoor air,” one expert told NPR.
The cost of upgrading ventilation systems can also be expensive, with high-efficiency air filters alone costing twice as much as standard ones.
Help from state, local governments
But there are low-cost methods to help with ventilation as well as help from state and local governments who have received American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Some local governments are helping certain employers by using federal money to give away free portable air cleaners and HEPA filters and create indoor air programs.
These local programs offer guidance on improving indoor air quality, including cost-effective methods such as instructions for turning box fans into low-cost air cleaners.