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Staff infected at Vigi Mont-Royal seniors’ residence after ventilation system malfunction

Mont-Royal Senior’s residence tackling ventilation system amidst covid19 outbreak
WATCH: Why are they cleaning the ventilation system at Vigi Mont Royal? Can the COVID-19 virus spread that way? Global's Dan Spector finds out.

Every day at the Vigi Mont Royal seniors’ residence in the Town of Mount Royal, there is a small group of people who visit loved ones through their windows on the first floor.

Elektra Lekatis visited her elderly, coronavirus-positive parents on Wednesday. Earlier this week, she said, she realized something had changed on the other side of the glass.

“I noticed the regular staff that take care of my parents were suited up more than usual,” Lekatis told Global News.

Both of her parents have COVID-19.

READ MORE: Can COVID-19 spread through HVAC systems? Canadian researchers seek to find out

On Monday, members of the Canadian Forces deployed to Vigi Mont Royal told Global News they were now all required to wear N95 masks, due to concerns about the air quality inside the residence.

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“The establishment is thinking there could be a risk of getting infected because of the HVAC system, so yes, we put on some more complete protective equipment,” said Capt. Frederic Caron. Many staff members entering the facility could be seen wearing protective hoods as well.

Vigi Mont-Royal is one of the residences worst hit by COVID-19 in Quebec, where 156 cases are confirmed among residents and 91 among staff members.

Vigi-Santé did not respond to questions about potential issues with its ventilation system, but on Wednesday, the Montreal West-Central CIUSSS confirmed there was a problem.

“We were concerned that members of our staff deployed to Vigi Mont-Royal came down with the virus even though they were wearing the appropriate protective equipment,” said West-Central CIUSSS spokesperson Lauren Schwartz.

The CIUSSS sent infectious disease experts and an air quality specialist to look into the concerns, and determined the ventilation system was malfunctioning.

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“We ensured the system was repaired and can now confirm it is functioning properly,” said Schwartz.

During the investigation, she said the CIUSSS provided N95 masks to all staff on the premises.

For most COVID-19 patient interventions, whether in a seniors’ home or a hospital, health workers wear a regular surgical mask, visor and gown. N95s provide more protection but are in short supply.

“We reserve N95s for very particular circumstances, when things are happening that could cause the virus to be aerosolized,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, a professor in the McGill University Department of Medicine and an infectious diseases expert.

He said when the virus is being transmitted through respiratory droplets, there is generally not much need for an N95 mask. When the virus is being propelled into the air, however, N95s become more necessary.

Vigi Mont Royal is a privately-owned residence that receives government funding, and is monitored by the CIUSSS.

The residence is now undergoing a thorough disinfection operation, which Canadian Forces personnel are helping with.

“The main task we have is cleaning everything, trying to get rid of the virus, supporting the establishment with coming up with a plan on how to retake the building,” said Caron.

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READ MORE: How many Canadians have the novel coronavirus?

Scientists are still trying to figure out if SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, can be transmitted through the air, and not just through respiratory droplets.

Last month, researchers from China and Australia published an article saying it is “extremely important, that the national authorities acknowledge the reality that the virus spreads through air.

University of Alberta engineering professor Lexuan Zhong is investigating the possibility of the virus spreading through ventilation systems.

“Improving ventilation systems in high-occupancy structures could be a critical way to contain the pandemic… This work has the potential to impact millions of people living and working in these buildings,” she told Global News in April.

Oughton says airborne transmission is possible in a tight area with lots of virus and poor circulation.

“Where an entire area was super contaminated, and especially if there were factors there that would tend to propagate, either cause aerosols or prevent them from being filtered out, probably in those limited circumstances you could have what we call airborne transmission,” he told Global News, adding that if there was widespread airborne transmission, many more people would have the virus.

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Annette Demeny, who visits her elderly friend Titina every day through her window, said would still go inside in a heartbeat

“Send me in with an N95 mask. We failed at protecting them, now we need to take care of them,” she said.

Demeny is desperate to act as a caregiver for Titina inside Vigi Mont-Royal, but with the air problems, she says she will not be allowed in for at least two more weeks.