To say that we are living in historic times would be an understatement. Not only are we fighting a worldwide pandemic the likes of which we haven't seen in over a hundred years, but September has also brought devastating wildfires into the fold. All along the west coast fires are burning down acres of land and property, filling the skies with smoke and unhealthy particulate materials. It’s literally one public health crisis on top of another. Not only is there an uptick in fatal heart attacks and asthma attacks as a result of the fires, but this collision of these two disasters is making people more vulnerable to catching and dying from COVID-19.
The amount and reach of the wildfire smoke are unprecedented. The pollutants in the air are a big health concern because they nestle deep in the lungs and can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Preliminary research suggests that prolonged exposure to the wildfire smoke can cause significant reductions in lung functionality, temporarily for most, but potentially permanent for others. The biggest and most prevalent concerns about exposure to the wildfire smoke are that it makes people more susceptible to respiratory illness and the seasonal flu. This year, that also means being more susceptible to coronavirus.
While scientists aren’t yet able to measure the effects of the wildfire smoke on the transmission of coronavirus, early research shows that areas with more concentrated levels of air pollution have higher rates of COVID-19 cases, including deaths. People who are being forced to flee from their homes are particularly vulnerable to this current situation. The silver lining is that the pandemic is forcing people to stay in their homes which is helping reduce exposure to the toxic air.
Clean Air Shelters
Clean air shelters, or clean air spaces, are public spaces where people can seek relief from the wildfire smoke. These shelters are used by many communities to provide a safe space for people to shelter for extended periods of time. School gymnasiums, buildings at public fairgrounds, civic auditoriums, libraries, museums, shopping malls, senior centers, and other indoor areas with effective particle air filtration and air conditioning are examples of spaces used as clean air shelters during wildfires.
This is all good and well in terms of the wildfires, but it is not ideal in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the nature of these shelters, people are congregated together in small congested spaces and are breathing semi-recycled air. These conditions are a perfect way for the transmission of COVID-19 (and other diseases). As a building owner, it is important to know how to best provide cleaner air space for your occupants while also avoiding the further spread of the coronavirus.
Industrial Air Filtration
The first line of defense against the transmission of coronavirus and the inhalation of wildfire smoke is a properly outfitted HVAC industrial air conditioning system. If you haven’t done maintenance or repairs to your system in a while, now more than ever is the time to get up to date. Your central air conditioning system should have air filters with medium- to high-efficiency ratings.
This is extra important at the points of your building where you have large air intakes - front doors, loading bay doors, garage doors, cargo areas, etc. Your system should be able to handle higher than expected occupancy levels for your space, and if it can’t, you should try to provide personal air filtration units for low airflow spaces.
There are challenges to properly filtering the air in all parts of your building. Floating particles can move all about your space, so if you clean one section of air in a space, new dirty air can move in and replace it almost immediately. The process of cleaning the air needs to be ongoing and consistent. HEPA filters are great for fighting the smoke and the virus particles in the air. Small units can be installed to filter areas that have less airflow or are frequented by several different people. They are also an ideal choice if you have an enclosed office space.
Filtering out the air in your building is essential, but you will want to try and help your HVAC system carry the heavy load during these wildfires. You can lighten the load on your unit by installing the following practices and procedures in your environment.
Communication and Planning: Improve your onsite communications about COVID-19. Use health messages and materials developed by credible public health sources, such as your state and local public health departments and CDC. Educate your occupants about everyday preventive actions they can take in the workplace.
For example, if your building has large front doors or a large cargo loading area, educate and encourage your occupants to minimize the times that those doors are left open to reduce the amount of air getting into your building that needs to be filtered.
Cleaning: Follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and best practices for everything related to COVID-19, but especially for cleaning. Clean surfaces and workspaces can drastically reduce the transmission of coronavirus.
As we have learned these past months in quarantine, the virus can survive on surfaces for a long time and can even be disturbed and rustled back up into the airstream. Staying on top of regular cleaning and maintenance of industrial air filters and systems can kill the virus and protect the people in your building.
It’s also important to stay on top of the areas that are out of sight and as a result, often out of mind. Make sure your air filters are up to date and fresh to have the best chances of staving off the virus and side effects resulting from smoke inhalation.
Physical Distancing: Maintain physical distancing within your building and your clean air shelter. Spaces should be arranged so that there can be at least six feet between individuals, regardless of whether they show symptoms of COVID-19 or not. Consider the separation of furniture and creating partitioned spaces for individual units.