In the summer heat, air conditioned buildings provide a welcome respite from harsh weather conditions, but experts are now pointing to HVAC systems as one of the culprits leading to the spread of COVID-19.
The coronavirus that has infected more than 6 million Americans is generally spread through respiratory droplets which disperse within a few feet of the infected person and then land on surfaces. However, the virus can also be aerosolized into smaller particles and breathed into the lungs—especially when sharing an inclosed indoor space with an infected individual.
Earlier this summer, Harvard Infectious Disease Expert Edward Nardell pointed out that COVID-19 has spiked in Southern states and states with hotter climates, suggesting that air conditioning could be a contributing factor.
A June article of The Harvard Gazette quotes Nardell as saying that increasing evidence shows some cases of COVID-19 occur through airborne transmission when viral droplets hang in the air and are spread through currents.
“As people go indoors in hot weather and the rebreathed air fraction goes up, the risk of infection is quite dramatic,” Nardell said.
A study that is awaiting scientific review found that samples from various areas of a hospital’s HVAC system contained genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19.
Other infectious diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis and SARS can also be spread through HVAC systems that are not configured or monitored properly.
HVAC systems are complex and must be engineered carefully to ensure that every room has a steady flow of air to keep it comfortable. The currents and airflows have to be tracked to make sure systems are bringing in enough fresh air and are not circulating air that may be carrying airborne disease.
This is important for every public facility, but especially critical for hospitals and healthcare facilities where patients and staff run a higher risk of transmitting infection.
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