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Ventilation critical to combat spread of COVID

We now know transmission risk is largely by aerosols. That risk is largely indoors. It is entirely possible to enter an empty room that has poor ventilation, remove a mask, and contract COVID from aerosol particles still in the air after emission by someone with COVID even long before. It was inappropriate ventilation behind the hotel quarantine disasters.

Air quality in buildings is a risk to the public and therefore also a liability for building owners, managers and employers.

World Health Organisation adviser Distinguished Professor Lidia Morawska.

World Health Organisation adviser Distinguished Professor Lidia Morawska.Credit:QUT

It is now commonly advised to avoid closed spaces, crowded spaces and close contact inside. Why? Because the air may not be safe. The buildings may not be safe.

So what are we doing about the buildings? What is possible?

There are easy things to do. Open windows, open doors, switch off the recycled air in an air-conditioning system, increase the air changes per hour in a system.

There are relatively easy things as well. Install CO2 monitors in rooms (CO2 is a recognised proxy for pathogens in the air – working like smoke detectors), install filters and purifiers, audit air quality, install public information displays, flush rooms between uses, post air quality management guides.

How can we make buildings safe?

How can we make buildings safe?Credit:Erin Jonasson

There are longer-term measures as well – adjust standards, regulations and laws, install additional windows, adjust design codes, upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Across the world the issue of ventilation is receiving significant attention. In the US, Europe, the UK, Japan and elsewhere ventilation is now big. Reopening of schools is tied to ventilation upgrades. Likewise offices, restaurants, theatres, bars and venues.

Australia urgently needs a national taskforce to elevate ventilation and air quality management to the equivalent of vaccination. A bipartisan, expert-led taskforce working with the states and industry, to lead, advise, promote, educate, secure supply chains, fund and oversee a nationwide focus on all things ventilation. It need not be expensive. It can be easy. It must be urgent. We should be using the summer to get on with it.

There is a high price to pay if we don’t, including outbreaks and future variants.

Aerosols provide a transmission risk.

Aerosols provide a transmission risk.Credit:iStock

But we also now know that trust and confidence in our urban environment has been shattered.

After six lockdowns and more than 200 days, the CBD in Melbourne is on life support. There is an assumption there will be a bounce back when vaccination targets are met. But even when out of lockdown, the bounce was a dead cat. Not only has working from home found support, but research confirms people are now fearful of crowded spaces, transport and city buildings.

Unless there is an industry-wide effort to make air quality in our buildings (and transport systems) safe and demonstrate that to the public, confidence will wallow and the “suburban shift” continue. The social component of our cities has also shifted – to local footpaths and parks.

Public sector offices have been abandoned. Horrendous retail and office vacancy rates will continue. So will the vicious cycle. The economic consequences for key competitive advantages – the arts, culture, tourism, events, travel, hospitality, sport – will be terminal.

A quiet Bourke Street during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.

A quiet Bourke Street during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.Credit:Jason South

It requires leadership now.

There is an understandable conversation about vaccination. And debate has now turned to the seemingly inevitable – vaccination passports. No vax means fewer options to travel and attend events.

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What we also need is ventilation passports. An industry-accepted and trusted public way of recording air quality in our buildings (and transport systems). The property industry has embraced QR codes, so why not ventilation passports. Perhaps using interactive displays, or a traffic light warning system. Perhaps a simple domestic system as well.

As a part of reopening, vaccination passports for people and ventilation passports for buildings.

Healthy people. Healthy buildings.

I share that growing call for a paradigm shift in our thinking. Vaccination AND ventilation.

Ted Baillieu is a former Victorian premier and architect.

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