New Brunswick

Epidemiologist says COVID-19 is airborne and it's time to rethink measures

An epidemiologist with the University of Toronto says COVID-19 is airborne and it's time for New Brunswick and other governments to accept it.

Colin Furness contends New Brunswick and other governments have been in denial

Health Canada revised its guidelines on how COVID-19 spreads last month to include the risk of transmission from aerosols — or microscopic airborne particles. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

An epidemiologist with the University of Toronto says COVID-19 is airborne and it's time for New Brunswick and other governments to accept it.

Colin Furness contends governments have been in denial.

"In Ontario, it was suggested this week, perhaps COVID might be in the air. That's a big step forward. But until we actually confront the reality, we're going to continue to bring a knife to a gunfight."

Furness, who works in infection control, said it's time for New Brunswick to rethink COVID-19 measures and its messaging to the public.

"I would like to see people cleaning the air, putting in HEPA filters, wearing N95 masks when they need to be indoors with others, such as for grocery shopping, and to physical distance in terms of not sharing air, as opposed to physical distance in terms of standing six feet apart.

"It's a different way to proceed, and we just don't have any choice now."

New Brunswick reported two more COVID-related deaths Friday and 163 new cases of the virus, including 16 more confirmed cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

That puts the total number of active cases in New Brunswick at 1,255, a record for the province, and the total number of Omicron cases at 30.

Epidemiologist says COVID-19 is airborne, and it's time for governments to accept it.

1 month ago
Duration 3:35
Colin Furness works in infection control and says he'd like to see revised protocols, including HEPA filters and N95 masks. 3:35

On Wednesday, Health Canada released a video, offering COVID-19 guidance on ways people can improve ventilation and air filtration in their home.

"Ventilation is a key way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19," according to the description.

It replaces stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air. "This helps to reduce the levels of infectious particles in the air," the video states.

People can open windows and doors to create a cross-breeze of fresh air.

They can also use air filters with their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system or portable air purifiers with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, it advises.

David Miller, a Carleton University chemist and indoor environment expert who was among the scientists who signed a letter to the World Health Organization in 2020, asking it to recognize the potential for airborne spread of COVID-19, said it represents a positive shift.

"It has been understood for more than 18 months that aerosol transmission was the dominant factor indoors," he said in an emailed statement.

The video "explains in clear language what folks can do to improve ventilation in their houses if one or two people drop in over the holidays, even to drop off presents."

Health Canada quietly revised its guidelines on how COVID-19 spreads to include the risk of aerosol transmission last year — weeks after other countries and international health organizations acknowledged the airborne threat of the coronavirus.

The updated guidance mentioned for the first time the risk of transmission from aerosols — or microscopic airborne particles, but the federal government had stopped short of creating a campaign specifically around airborne spread.

"SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets and aerosols created when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, shouts, or talks," it states.

"The droplets vary in size from large droplets that fall to the ground rapidly (within seconds or minutes) near the infected person, to smaller droplets, sometimes called aerosols, which linger in the air under some circumstances."

The federal agency's guidelines previously said the virus spreads only through breathing in respiratory droplets, touching contaminated surfaces and common greetings like handshakes and hugs.

Province's plans for public buildings

Asked Friday what New Brunswick is doing about ventilation in public buildings, Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said the province is "continuously reviewing the most recent research and guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and from agencies around the world as it pertains to COVID-19, and adjusting when necessary.

"Ventilation systems in public buildings operate most effectively at preventing respiratory illness when they are properly maintained."

Sixty schools in New Brunswick have no integrated mechanical ventilation systems, as of September. Unlike the 234 schools in the province that do have integrated ventilation systems, these schools must rely instead on opening doors and windows to circulate air.

The province has seen a spike in COVID cases in schools in recent weeks, including a rise in school transmissions.

The Department of Education has earmarked nearly $9 million in the 2022-23 capital budget for school ventilation systems and air quality testing. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

On Dec. 7, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said his department plans to hire an outside expert to review ventilation in schools and the "competing science" surrounding the use in in-class HEPA filters. He promised to provide a timeline for that process "in the coming days."

"More information will be available in the new year," department spokesperson Flavio Nienow told CBC News Friday.

A total of $8.8 million will be invested as part of the 2022-23 capital budget to support the installation of integrated mechanical ventilation systems and the continuity of air quality testing as part of the province-wide ventilation program for schools that do not have integrated ventilation systems, he said.

The first ventilation systems are expected to be installed in 2022. "The number of projects implemented each year will be dependent on a variety of factors, including the availability of funding."

Asked about the province's advice for citizens about their residences, the Department of Health spokesperson said: "Ventilation on its own is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but serves as an additional layer in a set of protective health measures, that work together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"If residents are concerned about the ventilation in their residences they are encouraged to have their indoor air quality assessed," he added.

With files from Harry Forestell

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