Safer Indoor Air, and People Want Masks on Planes and Trains: COVID Quickly, Episode 29

Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series.

Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.

Louis: I’m Tanya Lewis.

Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman.

Louis: And we’re Scientific American‘s senior health editors. Today, we’re going to talk about reducing infections by improving indoor air quality…

Fischman: And how a lot of people approve of masks on planes, and other precautions, despite what you see on the news.

Fischman: You and I talk a lot about how COVID spreads through the air and the importance of masks. But when it comes to stopping airborne infections, there’s a longer-term solution that doesn’t require a filter across your face, isn’t there?

Lewis: Absolutely. It’s time we started improving the quality of the air inside our buildings. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, but we devote very little effort to making that air healthy for human beings. As Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech, put it, “We don’t rely on people to filter their individually water. We provide clean, safe drinking water.”

FischmanGood point. Why don’t we care as much about indoor air? It’s not like we just realized that breathing is important for health.

Lewis: It’s more of a recent building design issue. In the last 40 years or so, we started sealing things up more, in the name of energy efficiency. But though tighter seals reduce AC or heating bills, they also make it easier for the virus that causes COVID and other germs to accumulate in the air, making us sick.

Fischman: So in solving one problem, we created another. Shouldn’t there be standards for indoor air quality?

Lewis: Well there are—kind of. A professional engineering society called ASHRAE sets standards for all our buildings—including offices, schools, and restaurants. But these rules are mostly meant to protect equipment, not people.

Fischman: OK, I’m less important than a refrigerator. It really sounds like it’s time for an update.

Lewis: Haha, yes it is. In fact, the Biden Administration recently launched a push to improve the quality of air inside buildings. It has three pillars: ventilation, filtration and air disinfection. Ventilation is basically how much fresh outdoor air you bring in. The more fresh air, the more it dilutes any virus hanging around.

Fischman: Good. Then pillar two is filtration. That’s using high-quality air filters to remove virus particles. The filters have names like HEPA and MERV, and the “E” in both stands for “efficiency.”

Lewis: Right. And finally, there’s air disinfection—for example, using UV light to “kill” or inactivate a virus in the air. The Biden administration put out a practical guide for building managers and anyone who owns a home or business and wants to upgrade the air quality. We’ll put a link in the transcript.

Fischman: This all sounds good on paper, Tanya. But also expensive. If I owned a small business, or ran a school, I’d worry that I couldn’t afford to do all these things. Would I have to foot the bill myself?

Lewis: Great question. The American Rescue Plan contains $122 billion for schools and $350 billion for state, local, and Tribal governments to support some of these improvements. But Congress doesn’t want to keep funding the pandemic response, so it seems unlikely there will be a lot more federal money allocated for this. Fortunately, some businesses that have the resources are taking it upon themselves to upgrade their air quality.

Fischman: OK, that gets us part way there. There’s an argument, too, that this is not just good health. It’s good business as well, right?

Lewis: Yes—the benefits of fresh air go beyond COVID, and even other respiratory diseases. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s school of public health, says it’s just good business sense. Studies have shown that poorly ventilated places actually affect cognition and mental performance.

Fischman: We all know how awful it feels to sit in a stuffy conference room.

Lewis: Exactly. And we all deserve to breathe clean, healthy air.

Lewis: Last week, a judge in Florida struck down the mask mandate for airplanes and public transportation. News and social media were filled with photos of people gleefully discarding their masks.

Fischman: I also saw news videos of people cheering on planes. But, like many news stories during the pandemic, those videos give the wrong impression.

Lewis: They actually represent the minority of Americans, not the majority.

Fischman: Yeah, it turns out most people want masks on planes, trains, and public transit. 59 percent of people, in fact. That’s according to a poll by the National Opinion Research Center and the AP. The poll sampled about 1000 Americans, of various ideologies and backgrounds. They got the question right before the judge ruled against the mandate, and before the Biden Administration said it would appeal the ruling.

Lewis: More than half, huh? The loudest people get the most attention, I guess. But the majority of people in this country actually do support taking some public health precautions. You hear about people who don’t trust vaccines, but if you look at the numbers: 66 percent of Americans have gotten fully vaccinated. That’s 219 million.

Fischman: And the number of doses given out per day doubled this month compared with March, to almost 500,000. Big name athletes get headlines for refusing shots, but in the NBA more than 90 percent of players get them. In the airline industry, United said 99.5 percent of employees did so.

Lewis: Videos capture the shouting. But the data show the caring, and that’s something to keep in mind.

Louis: Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us. Our show is edited by Tulika Bose.

Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out for updated and in-depth COVID news.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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