How better ventilation can help your home be ‘Covid-proof’

For two years, you thwarted the odds. You masked up, kept your distance, got your shots.

Now, despite these efforts, you, your child, or someone else in your household has caught covid-19. And the last thing you want is for the virus to spread to everyone in the family or household. But how to prevent it from circulating when you live nearby?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends isolating covid patients for at least five days, preferably in a separate room with access to their own bathroom, as well as diligent mask-wearing for patient and caregiver . But for many families, these are not easy options. Not everyone has an extra bedroom to spare, let alone a free bathroom. Young children should not be left alone and younger children do not tolerate masks.

“For parents of a young child, it’s pretty hard not to be exposed,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, director of health at the University of Michigan. “You have to come back from perfect to perfect and manage your risk as best you can.”

But be brave. Scientists say people can still do a lot to protect their families, including improving ventilation and air filtration.

“Ventilation matters a lot,” said Dr. Amy Barczak, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “If you’re caring for someone at home, it’s really important to maximize all the interventions that work.”

To understand why good ventilation can make a difference, it helps to understand how the novel coronavirus spreads. Scientists have learned a lot in two years about its infectious mechanisms.

Virus particles float through the air like invisible second-hand smoke, spreading as they travel. Outside the home, viruses are quickly dispersed by the wind. Inside, germs can accumulate, such as thick clouds of cigarette smoke, increasing the risk of inhaling the virus.

The best strategy to avoid the virus is to make your indoor environment as close to the outdoors as possible.

Start by opening as many windows as the weather permits, said Joseph Fox, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer for a large school district in Ontario, Canada. If possible, open windows on opposite sides of the house to create a cross breeze, which can help sweep viruses outside and bring fresh air inside.

For added protection, place a box fan in the patient window, facing outward, to draw germ air out. Seal all openings on the sides of the fan, said Jim Rosenthal, CEO of Tex-Air Filters, a company that makes air filtration products in Fort Worth, Texas.

“It’s very simple, and it’s cheap,” Rosenthal said.

To keep infected air from leaking out of the sick room, Fox suggests wedging towels in the space under the bedroom door. People should also cover return air grilles with plastic. These grilles cover vents that draw air out of the room and recycle it back into the heating or cooling system.

Fox also suggests turning on bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans, which can carry germy air outside. While running exhaust fans while showering is relatively safe, Fox said, it’s important to open windows when fans are running for more than 10 minutes. This is to avoid depressurizing the house, a circumstance that could cause carbon monoxide to enter the house from the furnace or water heater.

Coronaviruses thrive in dry air, and increasing the amount of humidity in the air can help deactivate them, said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Marr suggests increasing humidity levels between 40% and 60%.

Using portable air purifiers can provide additional protection. Research shows that high-efficiency particulate air filters, or HEPA filters, can remove coronaviruses from the air. If people only have one HEPA filter, it is best to place it in the patient’s room, to trap any virus the patient exhales.

“You want to put the filter closer to the source [of the virus] as possible,” Fox said.

If affordable for families, additional air purifiers can be used in other rooms.

Store-bought air purifiers can be expensive, with some models costing hundreds of dollars. Still, for around $100, people can build their own portable air purifiers using a box fan, four high-efficiency air filters, and some duct tape. These DIY devices were dubbed the Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, after their co-inventors, Rosenthal and Richard Corsi, dean of the University of California-Davis faculty of engineering. Low-cost boxes have been shown to work just as well as commercial air purifiers.

Rosenthal said the pandemic motivated him to help design the air purifiers. “We are not helpless,” Rosenthal said. “We need to provide tools that people can use right now to make things better.”

Although caring for a loved one during covid puts the caregiver at risk, the danger is much lower today than in the first year of the pandemic. An estimated 95% of the population has some immunity to the coronavirus, due to vaccines, previous infections or both, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, a recent study found that half of the people living in the household of an infected patient also contracted the virus.

Since the elderly and those who are immunocompromised are at higher risk for covid, they might consider staying with a friend or neighbor, if possible, until the sick family member has recovered, said Priya Duggal, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg. School of Public Health.

Patients can be considered covid-free after a negative PCR test, Barczak said. Since patients with even small amounts of residual virus can continue to test positive on PCR tests for weeks, long after symptoms have cleared, patients can also use rapid antigen tests to assess their progress. If antigen tests are negative on two days in a row, a person is considered less likely to be infectious.

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