The weather outside is about to be frightful. Inside, COVID-19 is making things scary as well.
Temperatures are nose-diving across the country, and that’s driving millions of Americans indoors. As the coronavirus pandemic pushes towards a third peak, we’re facing incredibly dangerous days in the weeks and months ahead. Without the respite of outdoor activities and indoor humidity changing, the virus has almost ideal conditions for widespread transmission whenever people come together out of the cold.
Humidity plays a large role in the viability of the virus. Cold air causes humidity to drop, which can also dry out our nasal and throat passages. Those mucus membranes are critical barriers designed to stop viruses from entering the body. Even inside, things dry out; indoor air conditioning also lowers humidity and dries out those same mucus membranes. In addition to increasing all viral and bacterial infections, that can also cause indoor allergies to worsen.
Most states, though not nearly enough, have created a number of guidelines that limit the number of people gathered indoors. Some states have state mandates requiring mask usage indoors, and a similar amount has social distancing regulations that space out tables in restaurants or desks in many office spaces. However, that may be enough. Without the natural airflow of an open window and a light breeze, the airborne virus can linger in the air for a considerable amount of time.
Improper or poor airflow means that, in many indoor settings, six feet is about as good as sixty. Recirculated air can infect people from any distance, though the CDC remains one of the few major health organizations to stick with the six-foot recommendations, even after posting conflicting information on their own website.
There has been a push to encourage local governments to mandate humidity levels between 40-60%, the ideal setting for safe respiration, and to avoid transmission of viral, bacterial, and other airborne pathogens.
Some of the highest-risk facilities already have adequate HVAC filtration and air purification, plus what’s called ‘negative air ventilation’. This completely removes indoor air from the building and replaced it with filtered outdoor air. It’s one major reason hospitals can safely treat COVID-19 and other infectious diseases without worrying about indoor transmission between wards.
Finally, winter also increases the time of possible exposure. We tend to more time at the office, at restaurants, and in retail settings when we do go out in the winter, which means the risk elevates. One important difference between this winter and last spring is the number of students of all ages back in classrooms. In most communities, tens of thousands of students are spending eight hours or more in-person before going home, where they will likely spend the evening and night with loved ones. That combination of more exposure time and more exposure risk means some of the ventilation worries we face out of the house now follow us home.
It’s going to take strong community and business leadership to invest in proven, effective air purification, mask mandates, and strict social distancing regulations. As winter grows colder, that leadership is going to determine just how successfully we fight the pandemic.