Ventilation of buildings neglected in fight against Covid, expert says

Orla Hegarty claims half coronavirus deaths from infection in fewer than 400 structures

Half of all the people who have died from Covid-19 in Ireland were infected in fewer than 400 buildings and many deaths could have been avoided by proper ventilation systems, a leading expert on the built environment has said.

Orla Hegarty, an assistant professor at the school of architecture in UCD, has said the deaths occurred in 0.03 per cent of the State’s building stock, out of 2.5 million buildings.

She claimed the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) have consistently downplayed the importance of adequate ventilation in buildings as a core preventative measure against the spread of the virus.

Signalling the ventilation of buildings will be the next major front in the debate over tackling Covid-19 in Ireland, Prof Hegarty said: “The framing of this from the start has been: ‘It’s a medical mystery that struck us from nowhere.’


Nphet ‘afterthought’

“But, it’s a problem with buildings. There is not enough transmission in clean air to have a pandemic. The problem is there is enough transmission in unclear air for there to be a pandemic. Until we deal with the root of that, we are not getting anywhere,” she said.

Prof Hegarty has argued that proper ventilation of buildings to ensure a constant supply of clear air, in addition to proper masking protocols, is the most effective way to suppress the spread of the virus.

She said that buildings erected in Ireland in the past were designed to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, mainly by ensuring there were adequate draughts of air blowing through their interiors.

“I still don’t believe that I have heard anyone from Nphet speak with any understanding of transmission or prevention,” Prof Hegarty said.

“When they mention ventilation, it’s normally an afterthought after they have mentioned hand-washing or masks or social distancing.

‘Infected air’

“We have very clear evidence, and we have had for a long time, of how the virus transmits. It’s rare to be transmitted from hands.

“It is transmitted by inhaling infected air. It is not in a form that falls to the floor within two metres. It is in a form that emits tiny particles that people inhale. It’s a bit like cigarette smoke and even if you are right across the room, you are in danger of being infected.”

Prof Hegarty was a member of a Government expert group on ventilation which advised Nphet and then the Government directly. However, she resigned during the summer after few of its recommendations were adopted.

While the Government did implement a key recommendation of introducing CO2 monitors for schools, Prof Hegarty has insisted that more is needed, including proper masking and the introduction of air filtration systems in the buildings that present the biggest risk.

Even with CO2 monitors, some schools find it difficult to ventilate rooms adequately, especially on still days. She said that installing relatively inexpensive Hepa air filtration systems would be key.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said on Sunday that the Government and Nphet had included strong messaging on ventilation for many months.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times