Coronavirus: A forgotten weapon in the fresh air in combat

By David Shukman
Science editor

For one GP, the very thought of people keeping their windows closed “makes his head explode with rage”.

And the lead engineer says he embarrasses his family in restaurants “by touring and trying to get some fresh air.”

They are part of a growing group of medics and experts concerned about how coronavirus can accumulate in stuffy rooms.

And with people gathering indoors in the winter months, they say authorities need to stress the importance of outside air.

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What is the problem?

According to general practitioner Eiler Hughes, who is leading the operation in North Wales, the government’s slogan “hands, space, face” doesn’t go far enough.

He appears on a podium that Boris Johnson used at briefings on Downing Street, which gives him great importance.

But dr. Hughes – who became known as “Dr Fresh Air” because of his campaign around the issue – believes it should say “hands, space, face, replace”.

image titleAnglesey’s version of the four-word slogan

He says replacing stagnant air in a room with fresh exterior can significantly reduce the chances of people getting infected.

The council in Anglesey is believed to be the first in the UK to have banners with a four-word slogan.

Dr. Hughes says the new message has attracted worldwide attention.

“I tell people, ‘Give some fresh air this Christmas.'”

What does science say?

At the start of the pandemic, authorities focused on what were assumed to be the most likely routes of infection.

There is one risk of touching a contaminated surface – hence the long-standing guidelines to continue washing your hands.

The other is affected by droplets that occur when someone nearby coughs or sneezes – which first led to the rule of social distance of two meters, and later to the blanket.

But even now, the possibility of a third route of transmission is widely accepted – through tiny virus particles known as airborne aerosols.

Earlier this year, he was recognized by advisers to the UK government and then to the World Health Organization.

In recent days, U.S. authorities have gone further, saying that inhaling droplets and aerosols “is considered the main way the virus spreads.”

And faced with that risk, hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks are not a guarantee of defense.

Do open windows really make a difference?

Shaun Fitzgerald is convinced they do and has made it a personal mission to improve ventilation wherever he can.

He is a professor at the Royal Academy of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, but that does not stop him from “trying to open windows that have been closed or not maintained for years”.

“I have to get out if I can’t open them – I refuse to be in a place that isn’t well ventilated.”

According to dr. Fitzgerald, research shows that bringing in a good amount of fresh air to dilute and spread the virus can reduce the risk of infection by 70-80%.

He supports the exchange of messages about hand washing, social distancing and face covering, but says fresh air is “always fourth on the list or often not at all”.

“My concern is that the winter cold has not hit us in the face yet, but already this season people are indoors and the windows are usually closed.

“My big concern is that with the new strain of the virus, we’ll know that keeping aerosols low will be even more important, and that means keeping places adequately ventilated.”

What are the dangers?

Dr. Fitzgerald points to recent research at a restaurant in South Korea that pointed out how much the virus can spread indoors.

With the help of contact search and CCTV, the scientists were able to determine how one diner managed to infect two others, even though one was more than 4 meters away and the other more than 6 meters.

Even though all three were in the same room for only a few minutes, that was enough for the air conditioner to run the virus over those long distances.

“Aerosols can cross many meters after being transferred to the air,” says Dr. Fitzgerald.

“Two meters doesn’t give you security, all you need is good ventilation. If they had opened the windows in that restaurant, it might have changed things.”

But what about the cold release?

Dr. Fitzgerald says it’s not about opening every window wide every day, but about ensuring the crack lets in fresh air.

And the answer is to add another layer.

“I would recommend wearing a wool jumper, not just a short-sleeved top.

“But we should do it anyway to save on heating bills and reduce energy demand, because we’re all doing our best to fight climate change.”

Dr. Hughes says that irradiating a room for a few minutes a day for a few minutes a day will not lose much heat, but it will make people safer.

And his idea for a Christmas present? Thermal underwear.

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