Manitobans focusing on ventilation as evidence mounts COVID-19 is airborne

Air quality solutions like air purifiers and ventilation systems, as well as better-fitted masks, should be talked about more as a way to decrease the risk of COVID-19, according to three recent studies which indicate the virus is largely transmitted through the air.

University of Manitoba medical microbiology professor Kevin Coombs told CTV News it is a little more complicated than that.

"The best evidence that we have is that the coronavirus SARS-COV-2 can be spread both by large droplets and also by the fine aerosols that remain suspended in the air. It is not a case of one or the other, it's both."

Coombs agreed ventilation is important, in addition to social distancing and mask-wearing.

He said the more we know about how airborne the virus is, the more important it is to socialize outside with personal protective equipment and distancing.

“Here on the prairies, it’s always windy it seems, so the wind is always blowing things and creating the natural ventilation,” he said.

Coombs said there is one issue with fitted masks like an N-95.

"An N-95 needs to be professionally fitted every time it’s put on; otherwise it’s not as effective as people think it is."

A provincial spokesperson told CTV News in a written statement that public health is always examining new and evolving research regarding COVID-19, adding nothing is off the table to help protect and keep Manitobans safe.

When CTV News asked Premier Brian Pallister about airborne spread and ventilation, he said because of COVID, the government is talking about air quality for upcoming infrastructure investments.

"With new schools, new hospital facilities and expanded emergency facilities and the like, the ventilation issue is obviously uppermost in everyone’s mind, and I’m sure will be of the most modern and up-to-date variety," he said.

Pino Valeri is ventilation system expert. He says air purification systems have been around since SARS in 2003.

"Of course, now given COVID, that's when they really started to more specialize them," he said.

Valeri sells and installs units that claim to be 99 per cent effective at killing germs like SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

He said putting one in your home or workplace can be pricey, noting it can range between $500 and $3,000, depending on the unit.

Jonathan Alward from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said improving ventilation is an area the government could help small businesses with through funding, as well as covering costs of other COVID-19 investments like barriers and hand sanitizing stations.

A spokesperson from the Winnipeg School Division said over the past year, the division completed an air quality review and has increased the flow of outside air. Air purifiers were not installed in classrooms, because the division said they circulate both air and droplets.