The Ontario government has installed stand-alone high-efficiency particulate air filters, a.k.a. HEPA filters, in all learning environments in the K-12 system.
The Safe Schools Coalition B.C. also wants this done in B.C., which was covered earlier this month in a Straight cover story. That’s because the coalition feels that these devices will reduce the likelihood of airborne COVID-19 transmission.
However, B.C. health authorities and the NDP provincial government have refused to do this.
Vancouver Coastal Health justified this decision in a post on its website. This has come even though a study (reported deeper in this article) shows that HEPA filters can sharply decrease the concentration of the virus in a classroom with an infected person.
The health authority still insists that HEPA filters are not necessary because “there is no evidence that ventilation systems, in good operating condition, are contributing significantly to the spread of the virus in BC schools”.
“Like most common respiratory viruses, COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplet transmission within a short range,” Vancouver Coastal Health declares. “Most commonly, students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 acquire the virus through close contact with a case at home or through their social networks.
“Unfortunately, school-based ventilation changes are unlikely to prevent transmissions in homes and social networks,” the statement continues. “In-school transmission accounts for approximately 1% of COVID-19 cases.”
This statement was updated on January 10, less than a week after the Straight‘s cover story appeared.
Unpublished study contradicts health authority’s position
A preprint paper on the medRxiv website has come to a radically different conclusion than B.C. public-health officials and the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education.
This paper, which has not yet undergone peer review, evaluated the effectiveness of different interventions against aerosol transmission of COVID-19.
The researchers determined that one HEPA filter was as effective as two school windows being kept partly open all day during winter. In fact, a single HEPA filter led to a 2.5-fold decrease in the concentration of virus particles in a classroom of 160 square metres with one infectious individual, according to the study.
Furthermore, it found that two HEPA filters led to a four-fold decrease in the concentration of virus particles.
“Combined interventions (i.e., natural ventilation, masks, and HEPA filtration) were the most effective (≥ 30-fold decrease). Combined interventions remained highly effective in the presence of a super-spreader,” the paper concluded.
The lead author is Jennifer Villers, a molecular biologist, epidemiologist, and disease modeller at the University of Geneva.
She and her fellow researchers relied on the CERN-developed COVID Airborne Risk Assessment Tool. (More information on CERN is available here.)
Health authority calls COVID-19 a “respiratory virus”
Vancouver Coastal Health describes COVID-19 as a “respiratory virus” even though some health experts have said that it’s much more than a respiratory virus and should not be framed that way.
“If you frame it as a respiratory virus, you have permission to call it mild, to say it’s nothing but sniffles for kids. And that’s commonly out there and I’ve heard that articulated in B.C. and elsewhere,” University of Toronto public-health researcher Colin Furness said in a recent talk hosted by Protect Our Province B.C. It’s a group of health-care workers and researchers trying to raise awareness about the airborne nature of COVID-19.
“But here’s the thing: COVID, before we even get to Omicron, COVID is not a respiratory disease,” he continued. “It’s a vascular disease that has an initial respiratory phase in kids and increasingly in adults. The respiratory phase is less dangerous, less acute. It looks like sniffles.
“The problem is not the sniffles. The problem is what the virus is doing elsewhere in the body from the toes to the testes to the brain. It is causing autoimmune disease. It is causing loss of brain tissue.”
In his words, the disease has led to “brain tissue disappearing” in adults.
“And autopsies of bodies have shown residual virus present six months after infection. Six months,” Furness added. “So this virus only begins in the lungs. And if all we’re going to talk about is lungs—and I really, really dislike that framing—then we can call it mild but I’m unprepared to do that.”
Vancouver Coastal Health also claimed in its statement that COVID-19 “spreads primarily through respiratory droplet transmission within a short range”.
This interpretation of COVID-19 has come under fire from many aerosol researchers, including Jose-Luis Jimenez at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Straight asked Vancouver Coastal Health for a list of the peer-reviewed studies that it relied on to support its position regarding HEPA filters. (The list is at the bottom of this paper and none include the word “filter” in the title.)
“As you’re no doubt aware, the closed peer review process for scientific literature often takes months or years between submission and publication—it’s not designed for the rapid dissemination of critical information during a rapidly evolving global pandemic,” Vancouver Coastal Health public-health communications leader Deana Lancaster wrote in an email to the Straight in response to the question.
“Accordingly, a large volume of COVID-19 research has been published on preprint servers such as www.medrxiv.org, which is sponsored by Yale University. Since you specified that you only wanted links to peer-reviewed literature, I have listed several of the most recent papers below that have helped to inform local decision-making, including one conducted in the VCH region.
“However, given that decisions must be based on the most up-to-date research I’ve also included preprints, including another study recently conducted here. Below that, I have included a list of older studies that our medical health officers have used to guide decision-making related to schools throughout the pandemic. Since we’re now focused on measures specific to variants of concern I did not add the links. If interested, you can search by title.”
Vancouver Coastal Health sources
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