British Columbia

Public health experts call on B.C. Ferries to provide more stringent COVID-19 safety measures

Epidemiologists are calling for more clarity around B.C. Ferries' ventilation protocols and more stringent mask requirements on sailings after the corporation announced federal proof-of-vaccination rules would not apply to its passengers.

Corporation had said passengers are not subject to proof-of-vaccination rules

The B.C. Ferries vessel Queen of Capilano. Public health experts are asking the corporation to do more when it comes to masking and ventilation aboard its vessels. (Brenda Kilpatrick/CBC)

Epidemiologists are calling for more clarity around B.C. Ferries' ventilation protocols and more stringent mask requirements on sailings after the corporation announced federal proof-of-vaccination rules would not apply to its passengers.

The ferry service falls under the category of "local public transportation" according to the province, and it says federal rules mandating proof of vaccination for air and cruise ship passengers will not apply to its passengers.

No public COVID-19 exposures have been traced to a ferry journey in B.C. over the course of the pandemic. But with more than 60,000 daily passengers on average, experts say the corporation could be doing more when it comes to stopping potential coronavirus transmission.

Masks are currently mandatory in all indoor settings on board B.C. Ferries vessels, except when dining or if passengers have a medical exemption.

But ventilation also plays a key role, experts say.

"Airplanes have pretty powerful ventilation systems where all the air in the airplane goes through very effective filters," said Damien Contandriopoulos, a public health professor at the University of Victoria. 

"When it comes to B.C. Ferries, the fleet is a mixed bag of older and newer ships," he said. "My guess is that B.C. Ferries cannot make sure that every single public indoor space in its fleet is ventilated to a level that makes it safe for people to gather indoors."

A B.C. Ferries spokesperson said the ventilation systems installed on their ships meet the MERV 13 standard, the minimum standard for filtering out COVID-19 particles.

"Ventilation systems are configured to maximize fresh air intake and therefore reduce or eliminate recirculated air," the spokesperson said.

However, it was unclear if these filters were installed across the entire B.C. Ferries fleet, with some vessels having been built in the 1960s. The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up request for clarification.

The B.C. Ferries vessel Queen of New Westminster was built in 1964. Public health experts are questioning whether modern ventilation systems, capable of filtering out COVID-19 particles, have been fitted across older ships. (Braveheart/Wikipedia)

Airborne transmission 

The B.C. Ferries COVID-19 safety page lists "extra cleaning and sanitizing measures" as part of the corporation's procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but it does not mention ventilation or distancing measures.

But according to Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, putting resources into disinfection of surfaces is "really ineffective" to stop the spread of COVID-19, which is an airborne virus.

"There's still this lingering thinking of surfaces being important, and we just really have no evidence that that's the case," Brauer said.

He says the three most important factors with an airborne virus are distance between people, ventilation and whether people are wearing masks.

"B.C. Ferries does have some possibilities that you would never have in an airplane," he said. "Like, you could keep doors open, you could keep windows open, which is fantastic for ventilation."

Vaccination another tool to mitigate spread

Both Brauer and Contandriopoulos also said that consistent masking indoors, with N95-style masks, would be much more effective in stopping the spread of the virus on a ferry, as opposed to allowing passengers to wear fabric masks and take off their masks while eating.

While vaccination reduces the effect of the coronavirus when it's in the body, it does not affect the way the virus is transmitted directly. Brauer calls it "another tool" to stop the spread of the virus.

Contandriopoulos says ferries ultimately fall into a "grey zone" where he can see arguments for and against implementing a vaccine mandate.

"Once you're on the ferry, I think having very strict ventilation measures, having very strict masking procedures, would make much more of a difference than having a vaccine mandate on B.C. Ferries," he said.

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