Air filtration devices are “not useful” in school environments without other coronavirus safety measures in place, according to a doctor with the Pan American Health Organization.
Throughout the pandemic, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has repeatedly called on the provincial government to improve ventilation within the school system and provide rapid tests and personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks. Other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, have provided thousands of air purifiers to school boards.
Although the B.C. government has begun making rapid tests available at some school settings, there was no targeted funding towards upgrading air filtration systems and adding HEPA filters in schools.
During a briefing, Wednesday, Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies at PAHO, said HEPA filters and other air filtration systems aren’t effective means to prevent or reduce transmission of COVID-19 unless there are other safety measures in place, like mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“Air filtration devices … are not useful, per se, if there are no other measures in places, particularly because the mode of transmission of the virus is still more from person to person in enclosed environments,” he said, later adding. “When those measures are not in place, no air filter device will reduce transmissions, particularly in those settings.”
Many jurisdictions across North America either begin removing mask mandates in public spaces or have already done so. Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as a handful of U.S. states including Florida and Texas have already eliminated mask mandates in schools. Quebec is planning on lifting its mandate for schools next week while Ontario is considering the idea. California, Oregon and Washington are slated to remove their mandates by mid-month. British Columbia has not indicated whether it would remove its mask mandate in schools.
Ugarte said HEPA cleaning and ventilation devices will reduce the number of pollutants and containments but also particles that may contain viruses.
“Looking at all the types of air filtration devices, HEPA standard devices will reduce more transmission of the virus, will capture those particles when they are passing through these filters,” he said.
Ugarte stressed that it is far more important to reduce person-to-person transmission through mask-wearing and distancing and by reducing surfaces that other persons may touch frequently.
“When we have community transmission and we have a high level of cases that have been in a certain location, we have to use our masks properly at schools, at restaurants, at others,” he said. “Even, the recommendation at restaurants is to use the mask when we are not eating or drinking [in order to] reduce the possibility of us getting this virus or any other respiratory virus. Some of those droplets, small particles, can be inhaled by the persons who are in that location without protection.”
While PAHO recommends people wear masks in schools, restaurants and other smaller indoor setting with poor ventilation, Ugarte said HEPA filters, though useful, are only one layer of protection and the other layers shouldn’t be ignored or abandoned.
“Those measures have been proven to be useful. HEPA filters are useful, only if they are applied with other protection measures.”
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