Plexiglass Obstacles Gained’t Cease the Virus on the Debate, Consultants Warn

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Plexiglass Barriers Won’t Stop the Virus at the Debate, Experts Warn

A box fan, an air filter – and tape to attach.

With four such devices cobbled together, which may cost a total of $ 150, Wednesday night's vice-presidential debate could be much safer, according to airborne virus experts.

Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will sit on the podium more than 12 feet apart, with Plexiglas barriers in between. Mr. Pence and his aides had objected to the barriers but gave in on Tuesday evening.

The barriers could make more sense if Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris sat closer together on the podium, scientists said. However, the risk in this situation is airborne coronavirus transmission, and the barriers do nothing to protect Ms. Harris and presenter Susan Page, director of USA Today's Washington office, from contracting Mr. Pence.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines confirming the virus can be carried by aerosols – tiny droplets – indoors more than three feet high. In a recent study, scientists isolated infectious viruses about 10 feet from an infected patient in a hospital.

Linsey Marr, an airborne virus expert at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, downright laughed when she saw a picture of the debate building. "It's absurd," she said.

When she first heard that there would be plexiglass barriers, Dr. Marr, she imagined a case with an open back or an open top: "But these are even smaller and less appropriate than I imagined."

Other experts said the barriers might have made sense if the debaters sat close together.

"These plexiglass barriers really only come into effect if the Vice President or Kamala Harris spit on each other," said Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. "These are really just splash shields."

The C.D.C. On Tuesday, Mr Pence was cleared for debate and said he had not been in close contact with anyone known to be infected. The agency's definition of close contact is within a meter of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

Still, at a rally Tuesday night, Mr Pence said he met with President Trump that morning in the Oval Office, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

"What we've seen over the past week is that there are a lot of rooms in the White House that are pretty closed and pretty poorly ventilated and where people can come into close contact even if they're more than three feet away." Said Dr. Murray.

"I would be very surprised if he wasn't close enough to some of these people to be at least potentially infected."

Mr. Pence has cited multiple negative tests as evidence that he is not infected. However, tests for the coronavirus may not produce positive results for up to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Given the risk that Mr Pence could be infected, the Presidential Debate Commission should instead focus on preventing airborne transmission of the virus by improving ventilation at the place of debate.

"The point is that at 12 feet 3 inches, spray droplet transfer is not the problem," said Donald Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland. "How is the ventilation? What is the direction of the airflow? "

Updated

Oct. 7, 2020, 5:42 p.m. ET

Scientists have raised similar concerns about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The Sept. 29 presidential debate may have seen Mr Trump at the peak of his infectivity – studies have shown it begins about two days before symptoms appear.

During this debate, the two lecterns were about ten feet apart. Mr Biden's campaign states that the debate will not go to the C.D.C. Requirement for close contact.

In a press release on this week's new guidelines, the C.D.C. said: "People are more likely to get infected the longer and closer they are to a person with Covid-19."

The presidential debate lasted 90 minutes, and Mr Trump spoke loudly during much of it, which can release ten times as much aerosolized virus as breathing alone, experts have found.

The debate took place in a large room, but the hosts, the Cleveland Clinic, have not announced any ventilation measures for the room.

"From what we saw in the debates last week, there were very few, if any, checks, including the President's failure to test that morning," said Joseph Allen, ventilation expert at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "It's just shocking."

About the plexiglass setup for the vice presidential debate, Dr. Allen: "My biggest concern is that millions of people will get the message that such an effective control set looks like this."

Dr. Milton and his colleagues reached out to the Debate Commission, as well as both campaigns, to recommend buying plug-and-play air filters – great models cost only $ 300 each – or four boxed fans and air filters glued together. Any debater would have positioned one device to draw in and purify the exhaled air and another to produce clean air.

Jelena Srebric, mechanical engineer at the University of Maryland, found out in a study with singers over the past few months that this so-called Corsi box – named after Richard Corsi, an air quality expert at Portland State University – the number of aerosols.

Another solution, experts say, is to simply put the debate online. "I don't understand the opposition to a virtual format," said Natalie Dean, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida.

“We have spent a large part of our lives online. The technology is there. Why insistence on a personal debate? "

A distant debate would protect Ms. Harris if Mr. Pence were infected – and the format would safely protect Mr. Pence from others who might be infected.

"Given that the president is currently suffering from a fatal disease, the vice president should be protected," said Dr. Murray. "I think it makes sense to take extra precautions to avoid getting into a situation where both the president and the vice-president could be ill at the same time."

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