'Easy to feel paranoid' living in an apartment building with positive coronavirus case

Public health experts say people who live in apartment buildings or other multi-family dwellings are more susceptible to the virus because physical distancing is more difficult in close quarters.

Shared spaces, elevators present COVID-19 risks, challenges to distancing in multi-family buildings

Josh Reid lives in a downtown Winnipeg highrise. The property manager posted a notice throughout the building recently that a tenant tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Josh Reid)

Josh Reid walked into the elevator of his downtown Winnipeg highrise two weeks ago and saw a notice from the property manager that a tenant there tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The notice said the tenant was self-isolating in their apartment and following public health protocols, but Reid was worried.

"Initially you wonder what floor are they on? Is it my neighbour? It'd be nice to know more information. And then what's being done to mitigate any potential community transmission," he said.

Although Reid doesn't want to see draconian measures put in place to force people who have tested positive for the virus to stay in their apartments, he wonders what can be done to protect others in the building.

Public health experts say people who live in buildings like Reid's are more susceptible to the virus because physical distancing is more difficult in close quarters.

Medical experts say there are a number of risks involved in living in multi-family dwellings like apartment buildings, including being in close quarters like elevators, and touching surfaces many other people have touched. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

"People share a lot of space. People come and go and touch the handles and then use some common space," said Chen Liang, an associate professor of medicine at McGill University.

"So there is, I believe, a very high chance of transmitting the virus if anybody in that building has COVID-19," he said, if proper decontamination isn't done regularly.

That's exactly what Reid is worried about.

"To someone who's living near it [a case of COVID-19], it's easy to feel paranoid knowing that it could be your neighbour or you're sharing elevators or all the other things that come with living in a multi-family building," he said.

Even though Reid is currently working from home and practising physical distancing, his apartment is on the 21st floor and he has a dog, so he uses the elevator multiple times a day. He also uses a shared laundry room.

Reid was told the building is cleaned three times a day, but because he hasn't seen it, he's not taking any risks.

Ways to protect yourself

Dr. Michelle Driedger, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba says people who live in apartment buildings have more to worry about than people in single family homes.

"It's trying to adopt all of those kinds of protective measures that you can in a situation that you may not have full autonomy and control over your environment," she says.

She suggests people who live in these situations should be extra careful around their neighbours, and when touching surfaces like hand rails, elevator buttons, door handles and laundry machines.

Driedger says residents in multi-family apartment buildings should try to use the stairs instead of cramped elevators, but they should be careful not to touch railings. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She also suggests avoiding using the elevator when others are in it.

Reid says he's sanitizing his door handles and elevator buttons, but he's worried some things are out of his control. 

During the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong, investigations show environmental factors like the sewer played an important role in the disease transmission, according to a 2006 article in the Journal of Environmental Health.

In one apartment building, high concentrations of viral aerosols were drawn into apartment bathrooms through the floor drains. From there, winds drew the aerosols to adjacent buildings.

Reid wonders if that's a possibility, or if droplets of infected people can pass through the ventilation system in the building.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, says Manitobans shouldn't be worried about the virus being spread through vents because it's spread through person-to-person contact. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said in a press conference this past week that people who live in apartment buildings shouldn't be worried about catching the virus through vents. 

"This is spread by contact and droplet spread, so it doesn't get aerosolized," he said. 

"You do not need to be concerned about forced air furnaces or any type of HVAC system. This is contact and droplet spread only."

Liang says there simply isn't enough evidence to rule out the possibility of transmission through vents or through sewers, but at this point it looks rare.

"The easiest route for this virus to spread is through contaminated surfaces and through contact," he said.

"If you keep your distance, more or less you should be fine. We should be more concerned about the [person-to-person] contact. Washing your hands is very, very important."

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Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to