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Op-Ed: Return to work? Reducing coronavirus transmission in offices

Last time topic was conspiracy theories indicating that the novel coronavirus was artificially created. Strong arguments were made against these unsubstantiated ideas. Coronaviruses have been with such for millennia. The previous article also discussed whether there is more than one strain of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. New evidence suggests this is not the case. Although all viruses mutate, this is not, as yet, leading to more virulent forms.

The topic for this article is the built environment and transmission risks, plus measures that people can take in their homes and offices. This is an important area, given the number of governments easing lockdowns and encouraging people to return to work. Moreover, given that people spend most of their time inside buildings, understanding the transmission dynamics of coronavirus inside is important.

When considering disease transmission inside buildings, scientists need to look at factors like human behavior, spatial dynamics, and building operational factors. Considering how each of these potentially promotes and mitigate the spread and transmission of the virus helps to alert the general public to the different risks.

To begin such a risk assessment, it is established that the virus spreads are due to three key measures: close interactions between individuals, fomites (which are objects likely to carry infectious diseases), and through viral exchange and transfer through the air. Based on this, a higher occupant density together with increased indoor activity increases the social interaction and hence connectivity through direct contact between individuals.

As people move through buildings, there is direct and indirect contact with the surfaces around them. Viral particles can be directly deposited and resuspended due to natural airflow patterns, mechanical airflow patterns (if you have air conditioning), or other sources of turbulence in the indoor environment including walking. These resuspended viral particles can resettle back onto surfaces. This needs to be considered in the context that infected, individuals with COVID-19 shed viral particles before, during, and after developing symptoms.

What can be done when working indoors?

With a typical building, the simplest way to deliver outside air directly across the building envelope is to open a window. Window ventilation but increases outside air fraction and increases total air change rate as well within a room. However, measures should also be in place where close proximity would promote potential viral transfer from one residence or office to another.

Light can form part of a further mitigation strategy. Daylight has been shown in many studies to shape indoor microbial communities in household dust to be less of the human infectious type compared with dust found in dark spaces. UV light can also help to inactivate the virus.

The next consideration is humidity. Based on data related to SARS and MERS, we the viability of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosol is likely longer at lower relative humidity levels – above 50 percent. So, if humidity levels can be increased, this could be helpful.

Plus we have the standard measures: proper handwashing is a vital for controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2. People need to avoid contact and spatial proximity with infected persons and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water.

Regular disinfecting of surfaces is also important. Scientific evidence shows 62 to 71 percent ethanol is effective at eliminating the virus from all types of common surfaces.

Items should be removed from sink areas to ensure aerosolized water droplets do not carry viral particles onto commonly used items. In addition, counter-tops around sinks should be cleaned using a 10 percent bleach solution or an alcohol-based cleaner on a regular basis.

There is also physical distancing. As we cannot tell who is infected and who is not, the best way to avoid spread in some situations is by avoiding large gatherings of individuals. This is also referred to as “social distancing.” On a wider scale, travel bans and other mobility restrictions have proved effective.

Face masks are not very effective for asymptomatic individuals. It is important to preserve masks for individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 and for health care workers and family that will be in consistent contact with individuals infected with the virus. Wearing a mask can give a false sense of security when moving throughout potentially contaminated areas, and the incorrect handling and use of masks can increase transmission – they need to be seen as infectious waste items.

Further information is outlined in this video:

The best thing is to continue to work remotely. If this cannot be done, then some of the measures discussed can help to lower the viral transmission risk.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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