'Open a window': Calls for fresh COVID-19 messaging as B.C. officials downplay airborne spread
VANCOUVER -- In the wake of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control updating its public messaging to acknowledge aerosol spread of COVID-19, calls are growing for a change in public messaging. The province’s top doctor, however, is downplaying the significance of airborne spread of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the BCCDC tweeted a link to its website with the caption that the virus “spreads from a person with COVID-19 to others through larger droplets and smaller droplets known as aerosols.”
The acknowledgement comes two weeks after Vancouver Coastal Health quietly changed its website less than 24 hours after a CTV News Vancouver story highlighting the outdated information about airborne transmission on the site. While there has been widespread scientific consensus for months that COVID is airborne, the health authority’s website still said “there is no reported evidence of airborne transmission” until after CTV News pointed it out.
On Thursday, CTV News asked Dr. Bonnie Henry whether she would clarify public health messaging and encourage the public to open windows and doors for ventilation, while providing easier access to N95 masks for nurses and teachers, who work in enclosed, high-risk settings.
“We have always said, there is a continuum of droplets and they are spread through the air,” the provincial health officer said. “What we are not seeing is what we call traditional airborne transmission which is, sort of, colloquially, we say transmission around corners or through ventilation systems … we do not see that with COVID-19.”
She said most transmission is through close contact, but acknowledged that where people are indoors with poor ventilation, especially when there are a lot of people together, aerosol COVID particles are generated and that can lead to infection from distances farther than the two-metre distance attributed to droplet spread. She reiterated her guidelines to improve ventilation, minimizing the amount of time spent indoors and avoiding large gatherings with people outside one’s household.
One of the province’s leading experts in air quality wants the province to clarify and add to its messaging with simple, practical advice.
“If you are in a situation where there’s close contact, obviously be wearing a mask and then open a window. It’s really not much more complicated than that,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, who also believes the BCCDC’s message should’ve been stronger and clearer.
“This virus is transmitted through the air and things like distancing, masks, ventilation are really what are going to improve our safety,” he said, noting that ongoing surface sanitation isn’t accomplishing much and exposing workers who repeatedly wipe surfaces to cleaning agents that can be harmful.
“In a workplace, it’s a little more complicated, because we really like to see that natural ventilation: opening windows if you can, same thing in schools, but overall I would like to see (messaging) with this understanding that ventilation is important,” Brauer said.
Many school classroom windows cannot open, according to the BC Teachers Federation, which has been pressuring the provincial government to make good on a commitment for portable HEPA air filters in classrooms. The union says it hasn’t seen any yet.
“There are teachers and there are families who have already purchased their own (air filters) for their classrooms and that should not be the case,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring. “We highlighted the importance of ventilation and masks in September and so everything that we’ve been pushing for has taken far too long and really, the message it sends to our members is their health and safety concerns aren’t that important.”
She pointed out other provinces, like Ontario, have implemented mandatory mask policies for all students for months, while B.C. still only requires students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear them.
“It’s hard to understand why this has been so controversial, and now that the BCCDC has accepted the airborne nature of the transmission of the virus, it makes very little sense not to have a blanket mask mandate,” said Mooring.
She’s advocating for access to the province’s N95 medical-grade mask supply for teachers who want the most protection possible in settings where 30 students are breathing unventilated air for six hours or longer.
That call comes as British Columbia’s nurses ask the province to open up supplies of N95 masks to all health-care practitioners. Right now, they’re only approved for use during Aerosol Generating Medical Procedures (AGMPs) and when treating patients with lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“It really does cause a lot of concern among nurses as to why they have not been able to access N95 masks in every health-care setting, like long-term care, in the community when they’re going into patients’ homes,” said BC Nurses Union president Christine Sorensen. “Until we have confirmation that the patient does not have COVID, we should err on the side of caution, because we also know many patients are asymptomatic or presymptomatic and can be carrying the virus, which places our health-care staff at risk.”
She said nurses long ago accepted that COVID is airborne, and that public health messaging should be unequivocal both so people can avoid being infected, but also to know how to behave in indoor settings, that can include health care.
“A simpler message is much more effective for the public, who is greatly confused right now by so much of the public messaging around COVID and the vaccines,” said Sorensen.
“It really doesn’t take a lot of technology, a lot of assessment,” he said. “Anything you can do to be bringing in fresh air and replenishing that space is going to reduce transmission. Essentially, you’re making the indoors like the outdoors.”