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Were Plexiglass COVID Barriers a Big Mistake?

We were fooled into thinking that droplets were the primary way COVID is transmitted. Aerosolized viral particles get around COVID barriers!
Were Plexiglass COVID Barriers a Big Mistake?
Diverse male and female colleagues sitting in front of computers separated by sneeze shields. independent creative design business during covid 19 coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the early public health pronouncements and policies regarding the spread of the coronavirus turned out to be wrong. In particular, the belief that large droplets were responsible for viral transmission led to a false sense of security. People were told that if they maintained a 6-foot separation from others they would be safe. Plexiglass COVID barriers sprang up in pharmacies, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and offices. Were they a dangerous mistake?

Plastic COVID Barriers Can’t Block Smoke:

We now know that SARS-CoV-2 can spread through microscopic aerosols as well as large droplets. Imagine smoke wafting through a room. That may be a better way to comprehend how the coronavirus virus moves and transmits COVID-19.

We first learned about the smoke metaphor from Dr. Linsey Marr. She is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. She is one of the world’s leading experts on the transmission of viruses, bacteria and fungi through air. We interviewed Dr. Marr and another world expert on ventilation, Dr. Richard Corsi, on our nationally syndicated public radio show almost a year ago. Here is a link if you would like to listen to the podcast. 

Show 1227: What Do You Need to Know About Airborne Virus?
Ventilation is crucially important when it comes to preventing the spread of airborne virus. Learn how to protect yourself.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and In Your Nose!

The bottom line is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can hitch a ride on aerosol particles and float around an area much as smoke drifts around a room. Imagine someone puffing on a cigar while waiting in line at a grocery store.

OK, I admit that may be hard to visualize, given that such behavior is no longer socially acceptable. But humor me for a moment. See in your mind’s eye a human smokestack a few feet in front of you. Would you smell the cigar smoke within seconds? Of course you would! And the cashier would see and smell it too, even if he were “protected” by a plexiglass COVID barrier.

The point is that smoke easily circulates through the air. Depending upon the air flow, chances are very good that you would be smelling cigar smoke at quite a distance from the human chimney. And if the ventilation system is bad, the smell of cigar smoke can linger for quite a long time. If you smell it, you are breathing it. You can’t smell the coronavirus, but you sure as heck can breathe it.

Are Plexiglass COVID Barriers Counterproductive?

An intriguing article in the New York Times (Aug. 19, 2021) by Tara Parker-Pope started with a scary headline:

“Those Anti-Covid Plastic Barriers Probably Don’t Help and May Make Things Worse”

Plastic barriers may actually interfere with good ventilation and permit viral particles to collect in some areas.

Here is how Parker-Pope describes the problem:

“Under normal conditions in stores, classrooms and offices, exhaled breath particles disperse, carried by air currents and, depending on the ventilation system, are replaced by fresh air roughly every 15 to 30 minutes. But erecting plastic barriers can change air flow in a room, disrupt normal ventilation and create ‘dead zones,’ where viral aerosol particles can build up and become highly concentrated.”

The Australian Experience:

Researchers in Australia described the transmission of tuberculosis in an office environment where people worked in cubicles (Medical Journal of Australia, Feb. 17, 2014): 

“In our case, there were several factors in the workplace design that may have contributed to transmission including a closed air-conditioning system, modern open-plan office design with low profile design of cubicle dividers that allows workers to see and communicate directly with their colleagues without standing…”

If COVID Barriers Don’t Work, What Does?

Good ventilation, high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, and effective face masks can reduce the amount of contaminants people inhale. If you can smell someone’s body odor or perfume, you are inhaling their aerosolized particles.

There is no question that there is better ventilation outside than inside. But even if you are outside, you can breathe aerosolized viral particles. Just check out the cases of COVID-19 in North and South Dakota.

According to an article for the Daily Beast (Aug. 26, 2021):

The Sturgis SD Motorcycle Rally:

“In western South Dakota’s Meade County, more than one in three COVID-19 tests are currently returning positive, and over the last three weeks, seven-day average case counts have increased by 3,400 percent. This exponential growth in cases is likely attributable to the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew an estimated half a million visitors to Meade County and its environs from Aug. 6 through 15, potentially acting as a superspreader event.”

I suspect that many of the people who attended the rally believed that being outdoors would protect them from the coronavirus. There were so many people and they were so close together that even supposedly safe outdoor activities did not protect people adequately.

If you look at the stats for total reported cases per 100k and average daily new cases per 100k, South Dakota (14,680 cases) and North Dakota (15,178) lead the nation as I write this (Washington Post, Aug. 26, 2021). Cases are up 75% and 47% respectively over the last 7 days,

Morgue Trucks Again:

Perhaps you have read that morgue trucks are back.

The Sun Sentinel (Aug. 23, 2021) reports that:

“Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale acknowledged on Saturday that it has been forced to set up temporary refrigerated mortuary space.” 

Sarasota Memorial Hospital has leased a “refrigerated trailer as a precautionary measure.” The hospital is overwhelmed and is preparing for more deaths in the coming days.

Four hospitals in the Health First network in Brevard County, Florida, have also prepared a refrigerated trailer if the morgue is overrun. And Baptist Health in Jacksonville has a refrigerated truck standing by just in case.

Texas Needs Trucks Too:

The Texas Department of State Health Services has ordered 5 “mortuary trailers” from FEMA. They will be parked in San Antonio until public health authorities determine where the need is greatest. 

Final Words on Plexiglass COVID Barriers:

We are hoping that this country is getting close to a peak and none of the morgue trucks will be necessary. We want to see cases of COVID-19 start to come down the way they have in India, Brazil and Indonesia. 

We hope that people will be careful, even if they have been vaccinated. Plastic COVID barriers provide a false sense of security. Remember, you do not have to smell smoke to know there is a raging coronavirus fire all around us.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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