Is Your Air Conditioner Keeping You Cool But Also Spreading COVID-19?

The number of coronavirus cases continues to surge across the nation along with the heat of the summer. Scientists are beginning to correlate air conditioned spaces and the spread of the novel virus.

While healthcare professionals have always encouraged seeking refuge from high temperatures in the comfort of an air-conditioned space, 2020 has been far from normal.

Air-conditioners problems 

A growing body of research suggests that indoor spaces with poor ventilation or lack of new air can raise the risk of the virus’ spread, according to infectious disease aerobiologist Dr. Donald Milton of the University of Maryland.

“Anytime we are going into a closed environment, we are at higher risk,” Milton told ABC News. He added that he was most concerned about people “going to a cooling center where … the air conditioning is not filtering air or bringing in outside air — and a lot of people are close together.”

Study proves theory correct 

Milton’s worries were explored in a study published earlier this year. The team of researchers specifically looked at the spread of the influenza virus, which causes the seasonal flu. The research found that the flu virus might be spread through the air, as fine droplets, rather than through large droplet spray, as was previously believed.

Ultimately, the research revealed the virus’s infection rate appeared to drop in well-ventilated areas. Since both influenza and COVID-19 are respiratory viruses, Milton concluded that the types of closed spaces people typically go to escape the summer heat, when crowded with people close together, could also be ideal locations for virus spread.

Dr. Edward Nardell, a professor at Harvard Medical School, previously said that lower-risk spaces, such as office buildings, still often also force people to rebreathe non-fresh air.

In a recent presentation, Nardell cited his work with drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis as a possible parallel to the current coronavirus situation, noting to The Harvard Gazette in late June that, “As people go indoors in hot weather and the rebreathed air fraction goes up, the risk of infection is quite dramatic.” Nardell added that the same principle applies to extremely cold weather, which also forces people indoors.

Another study concludes similarly 

A Chinese study focused on the circumstances surrounding a small outbreak that was traced back to a restaurant in Guangzhou, China (near Hong Kong). According to the studies, 10 diners seated at three different tables inside the restaurant’s windowless, third-floor dining space became infected with the virus within two weeks of having lunch there.

The expanse between diners led researchers to conclude that “strong airflow from the air conditioner could have propagated droplets” between the restaurant’s tables, effectively suggesting that air conditioning units spread infectious droplets with impunity.

Milton told ABC News that the initial Chinese study “does point to the virus being able to survive in air for a while and travel a little bit farther.”

Advice from healthcare professionals

For individuals who enjoy working out, you can protect yourself by using face coverings and exercising social distancing. Those who own or run the facilities can take steps as well.

When riding in a car with someone, ask their driver to turn on the air conditioning, turn off the air recycler, and, perhaps most importantly, lower the windows.

Always do your best to increase fresh air, avoid being in enclosed areas with other people, and if you must, always wear a mast. 

Office administrators should invest in germicidal lamps, which use ultraviolet light to kill floating pathogens as they circulate through the air.

Building operators in commercial buildings should install air filters. These air filters are measured in strength by what is known as a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating, which indicates how small of a particle they are capable of trapping.

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