Just a Theory

Black lives matter

We Need to Talk About Ventilation

Zeynep Tufekci, in a piece for The Atlantic:

Jimenez also wondered why the National Guard hadn’t been deployed to set up tent schools (not sealed, but letting air in like an outdoor wedding canopy) around the country, and why the U.S. hadn’t set up the mass production of HEPA filters for every classroom and essential indoor space. Instead, one air-quality expert reported, teachers who wanted to buy portable HEPA filters were being told that they weren’t allowed to, because the CDC wasn’t recommending them. It is still difficult to get Clorox wipes in my supermarket, but I went online to check, and there is no shortage of portable HEPA filters. There is no run on them.

It’s the profoundly irresponsible plan to reopen schools without any remotely sufficient attempt to upgrade and modernize the air circulation systems of our dilapidated public school buildings that disturbs me. Meanwhile, school reopening proposals pay undue attention to hygiene theater to assuage fears, while very real risks go largely unaddressed.1 It simply won’t work, and that means disastrous outcomes for communities.

And it’s not like there aren’t ways to get things under better control. Tufekci continues:

However, Japan masked up early, focused on super-spreader events (a strategy it calls “cluster busting”), and, crucially, trained its public to focus on avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close conversations. In other words, exactly the places where airborne transmission and aerosols could pose a risk. The Japanese were advised not to talk on the subway, where windows were kept open. Oshitani said they also developed guidelines that included the importance of ventilation in many different settings, such as bars, restaurants, and gyms. Six months later, despite having some of the earliest outbreaks, ultradense cities, and one of the oldest populations in the world, Japan has had about 1,000 COVID-19 deaths total—which is how many the United States often has in a single day. Hong Kong, a similarly dense and subway-dependent city, has had only 24 deaths.

The U.S. needs to get it shit together. We have the wealth and knowledge to do this right, but need to put empathy for each other ahead of temporary political and economic impacts to do so.

  1. In fairness, the Health and Safety section the New York City DOE’s Return to School 2020-2021 plan says that the “DOE will make improvements to HVAC systems, as well as air conditioning repairs, to improve air circulation, as well as replacing regular air filters with higher efficiency types.” Still, there’s a social failing here, national leaders ought to fund the upgrading of air circulation systems to the highest standards in every school and classroom in the United States. ↩︎