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The Latest Virus-Busting Technology to Make Buildings COVID-Proof

Scientists believe the novel coronavirus is spread in three main ways: Through large droplets spread when people are in close contact, through fomites when droplets fall on surfaces and people touch the surfaces and via tiny droplets or aerosols.

by Taylor DesOrmeau, MLive.com, Walker, Mich. / August 6, 2020
Mike Fisher sprays an antimicrobial coating in an office at Chicago Building Plaza in Warren on Tuesday Aug. 4, 2020. TNS

(TNS) - Some of the new COVID-19-blocking technology is techy and futuristic – like ultraviolet light wands that look like lightsabers. 

Some pieces are unflashy, like HVAC filters and ventilation tweaks.
 
And methods might sound annoyingly familiar.
 
There’s no way to fully COVID-proof a building – at least not as long as humans are allowed inside. But there are pieces of technology, old and new, that are likely to chop down on the risk.
 
For the best chance of keeping coronavirus particles away, there are three components to manage: Surfaces, the air and humans.
 
How the virus is spread
 
Like a sports team dissecting an opponent’s tactics on film, the key to getting rid of COVID-19 in a building first requires an understanding of how the virus gets around.
 
Scientists believe the novel coronavirus is spread in three main ways: Through large droplets spread when people are in close contact, through fomites when droplets fall on surfaces and people touch the surfaces and via tiny droplets or aerosols that can stay suspended in the air for three to 16 hours, per the World Health Organization.
 
WHO recognized in July that aerosol transmission as an avenue to transmit the virus, but maintains its not the main way of spreading COVID-19 – citing droplet spread through close contact as the biggest factor. Other health experts challenge that thinking.
 
Either way, all three forms are accepted as potential routes to transmit the virus.
 
How can a building eradicate COVID-19 particles from its space? It must employ strategies to target each transmission route. Here’s a look at some of the technology businesses are turning to.
 
Killing the virus on surfaces
 
Early on in the pandemic, public health experts started emphasizing cleaning and sanitizing.
 
Americans responded – emptying the shelves of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, wipes and bleach. There were constant reminders to not touch your face. And to keep scrubbing your hands with soap until you’ve sung an entire song chorus in your head.
 
In May, the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidelines, saying surface transmission of the virus “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads” anymore.
 
Yet, surface spread is tangible. If we see someone wipe their nose and then touch a doorknob, we know if we touch that doorknob, it can spread germs and viruses – and potentially literal, visible snot – to us.
 
The science world has responded with coronavirus-killing solutions for surfaces.
 
A popular one is UV light. At Schuler Books in Grand Rapids and Lansing, each store has a UV wand, which looks like a bit like a fun-sized version of a Star Wars lightsaber.
 
Every time a customer picks up a book or product, they’re told to leave them on a table instead of putting them back. Employees go around and scan each side of the item with the UV wand – which cost about $100 online, said operations manager Tim Smith.
 
It takes about 20 seconds per surface to kill potential COVID-19 particles, Smith said.
 
"Without them, we were letting stuff sit for 48 hours before we were putting it back," Smith said. "This just speeds up that process."
 
The wand is also used on keyboards, phones, countertops and other surfaces – in addition to other cleaning and sanitizing routines – at the store.
 
Town Peddler Craft and Antique Mall in Livonia has a similar tool, said Co-Owner Matthew Macchiarolo. The store puts items in a microwave-looking box, which floods items with UV light for 5 minutes to kill viruses.
 
"Anytime a customer touches something, we put it in the sanitizer," Macchiarolo said.
 
Pens, tape measures, phones, scissors, rolls of tape, face masks and more go through the machine regularly, Macchiarolo said. The $400 device has helped put customers and staff at ease, he said.
 
UV light is extremely effective at getting rid of the virus, said Dennis Cunningham, corporate medical director for infection prevention at McLaren Health Care.
 
A warning – some of the lights and wands on the commercial market aren’t standardized, so it’s tough to know how well they work, Cunningham said. But “it certainly can’t hurt,” he said, noting he personally uses a PhoneSoap brand UV device to disinfect his phone. The devices run from $80 to $400 online.
 
Another emerging tool for tackling surfaces is adding an antimicrobial coating.
 
"It is essentially like a molecular bed of swords to microbes," said Michael Fisher, Co-Owner of a recently-launched business called Surface Security.
 
Surface Security goes into buildings, cleans the surfaces, disinfects them and then hoses down all surfaces with an antimicrobial coating – from what looks similar to a paint sprayer. For the next three to six months, virus particles that reach the sprayed surfaces are killed on contact.
 
The cost of the treatment varies, but costs no more than it would to wax the floor, Fisher said. There are also antimicrobial wipes on the market that have a similar effect.
 
Not every spray treatment provides such a coating, however. Another new trend is the fogger, which disperses disinfectant across a given area.
 
They can stand on their own or be sprayed manually and be worn like a backpack, said Rob Davenport, associate vice president of facilities, planning and management at Wayne State University.
 
Wayne State bought eight electrostatic fogging devices in preparation for the school year. They’ll be used twice per day in any of the weight rooms and fitness centers on campus that might be allowed to open for students or athletes. It will also be used in any potential exposure areas if the school has a positive COVID-19 case, Davenport said.
 
Such machines range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
 
There’s also the concept of sanitizing the humans themselves – like what the Genatek GT 1000 does. The Fenton-based product looks like an airport body scanner.
 
In 15 seconds, the machine does a temperature check, detects if you're wearing a mask, dispenses hand sanitizer and sprays a full-body sanitation mist on subjects. It costs $24,000, fully loaded.
 
The FirePlace Bar and Grille in Fenton is one of the first restaurants to try the all-in-one tool for its entering customers.
 
Killing the virus in the air
 
Every inch of a building can be disinfected and coated to kill the virus on contact – that doesn’t make it virus-proof.
 
Even if the humans themselves are sanitized, it doesn’t stop them from exhaling the virus.
 
If the virus spreads mostly via the air, businesses must also find ways to kill the particles while they invisibly float through the air. That’s done through two routes – filtration and ventilation.
 
“Most of the documented cases are from a large number of people that are indoors with really bad HVAC,” said Jesse Capecelatro, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the school’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Committee.
 
It’s better to be outside than inside, Capecelatro said – but that’s not always possible. For indoor spaces, one key is to avoid recirculating air.
 
“The worst thing you can do is not move air,” said Davenport, from Wayne State. “We have a better chance at controlling the pandemic in a building when we are moving air.”
 
Opening windows and doors is a good start. The next step is reconfiguring HVAC systems to bring in more outside air, with the idea of diluting the amount of virus particles inside a building by replacing them with fresh air.
 
The problem? Recirculating air makes it easier to keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The more outside air you bring in, the longer the air conditioner or heater needs to run, which runs up the bill.
 
A Minnesota company called 75F offers a potential tech solution – it sets up HVAC systems so they can go into “Epidemic Mode,” said CEO and Founder Deepinder Singh.
 
"You flush the air inside the building, so in case there's any lingering infection, that gets purged out," Singh said.
 
With the tap of a touchscreen, building managers can adjust how much fresh air is coming inside. It's a concept many large commercial buildings like universities and hospitals already utilize, Davenport said. Smaller businesses without the controls have to make the adjustments manually.
 
Hospital operating rooms, for example, often require as many as 20 full air exchanges per hour and have close to 100% outdoor air, Davenport. At Wayne State, they’re upping the percentage this fall from 10-15% new air to at least 20%.
 
What makes 75F unique is its efficiency. The system knows when spaces of a building are occupied and when they're empty – and brings in 100% fresh outside air when its empty, without trying to condition it.
 
It’s pointless to run A/C units or boilers hard to control temperature for empty spaces, Singh said.
 
Such a system costs about $200 to $300 per month for mid-sized buildings between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet, Singh said. It has other efficiency tools built in, so that building owners can quickly change settings to have more efficiency once the pandemic ends, he said.
 
Capecelatro is considering the same issues. He’s tasked with trying to make U of M’s buses safe this fall. Currently, the buses recirculate the air inside, blowing it all back out the front vents by the driver.
 
"That's exactly what you don't want to do," Capecelatro said.
 
Not only is the driver at risk because of the recirculated air blowing directly at them, but they’re also on the bus longer than others – meaning they’re exposed more to the virus.
 
But all riders are at risk without changing to a system that brings more outside air in, Capecelatro said.
 
"If one person on that bus coughs or sneezes or ejects particles, in about 30 to 45 seconds, every single person on that bus is breathing in a portion of that," he said.
 
Another way to remove virus particles from the air is through filtering.
 
HVAC filters are evaluated on a MERV rating, with a MERV 20 filter able to trap some of the smallest air particles and a MERV 1 filter only trapping larger particles. The highest MERV-rated filters are called HEPA filters and are often used in settings where air needs to be purest, like hospitals.
 
But there’s a cost – not only for the more advanced filter and an HVAC system that can handle it, but HEPA filters also bring up the costs of air conditioning and heating.
 
How effective are they at eliminating COVID-19? It's a tricky question.
 
The COVID-19 particles themselves are roughly 0.1 micrometers large, Capecelatro said. But they’re spread when they attach to droplets. Capecelatro says the question becomes, “Which size droplets are most infectious?”
 
Anything below 0.1 micrometers, and the droplet can’t hold the virus, he said. Anything above 10 micrometers will be too heavy and quickly fall to the ground.
 
For comparison’s sake, the average strand of human hair is about 100 micrometers in diameter.
 
Even the highest MERV-rated filters are only designed to trap air particles between 0.3 micrometers and 1 micrometer. Which means some particles between 0.1 and 0.3 micrometers could slip by.
 
“The HEPA filters, I am not convinced that they are of any benefit,” said Cunningham, the McLaren corporate medical director. “The pores in a HEPA filter, they usually have an opening of about 0.3 micrometers. The virus is smaller than that, so the virus can still pass through them.”
 
The other issue is getting all the air to go through the filter. When HEPA filters are installed inside an HVAC system, it can access most of the air supply. But it’s tougher for the portable HEPA filters that can sit on desks or the floor to filter all the air, experts said – but still will filter many of the particles.
 
UV light can also be used to kill particles in the air – and businesses like Traverse City’s North Peak Brewing are having such technology installed in their HVAC systems.
 
It costs a few thousand dollars, but most experts agree UV light a good solution for airborne particles because it’s proven to kill viruses. Similar to HEPA filters, UV lights installed with HVAC systems are more successful, because they can access larger amounts of air, experts say.
 
Yet, there are still questions, because of the novelty of this virus. Researchers at U of M are studying UV light and how much exposure time is actually needed to kill COVID-19 particles and if there could be other health risks, Capecelatro said.
 
"It's a challenging problem because there's so much we don't know," Capecelatro said.
 
Controlling human behavior
 
As MLive interviewed experts about emerging technology to kill COVID-19 particles, there was a common, unprompted theme.
 
"Probably the most effective thing you can do is wear a mask," said Capecelatro, from U of M.
 
"Wear a mask. That's the best thing you can do," said Davenport, from Wayne State.
 
"I think the single-most responsible thing to do right now is wear a mask," said Singh, the owner of the company boasting "Epidemic Mode" buildings.
 
Businesses are spending thousands of dollars on UV light, new filters, special sprays, human sanitizing boxes and more. Yet, a $2 piece of cloth is still touted as the top solution by many experts.
 
Wearing a mask it more likely to protect others than yourself, Capecelatro said. When we breathe, a plume of particles is emitted, he said – and a mask will trap many of those particles and reduce the momentum of the rest.
 
While they won’t block every single particle, masks help block fewer COVID-19 particles from getting into the air and keep them from traveling further, Capecelatro said.
 
"If you breathe in one of those particles, your immune system can probably fight it off. If you breathe in 10,000, you're probably going to get sick," Capecelatro said. "But what is that magic number? What's the minimum viral dose? That is still unknown."
 
From his research, Capecelatro said a bus full of students can be infected within 15 minutes if none are wearing masks. It would take hours to infect them if everybody is masked up, he said.
 
That’s why schools and businesses aren’t just considering the latest technology, but also the human controls, he said. Limits on how many people can be in an area – and for how long – can help reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.
 
“Thankfully, what we know works is not very difficult,” Capecelatro said. “Bring in fresh air, avoid overcrowding, minimize exposure and wear masks.”
 
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
 
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
 
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
 
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
 
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.
 
Additional information is available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.
 
For more data on COVID-19 in Michigan, visit https://www.mlive.com/coronavirus/data/.
 
 
©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.
 
Visit MLive.com, Walker, Mich. at www.mlive.com.
 
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