The experts include more than 360 scientists, occupational health specialists, engineers, doctors and nurses who are expressing alarm over surging cases and hospitalizations. They say provincial prevention messages “continue to be deficient” when it comes to infection threats posed by shared indoor spaces.
Their concerns are detailed in an open letter addressed to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and provincial premiers and medical officers.
Dr. Amir Khadir, a physician who is also a former Quebec MNA, is one of the health experts who signed the letter.
“There is a very strong consensus that is built around the fact that the transmission of the virus is mainly due to air transmission through what we call aerosols or small, tiny droplets that don’t fall as a ball, but that go into the air as a smoke,” he told Global News.
The experts want public health messages to more strongly warn of the risk posed in closed spaces, especially with winter forcing more people indoors.
They’re also calling for officials to order the inspection of ventilation systems in schools, long-term care homes and other essential public institutions, and funding for necessary upgrades in those spaces.
Matthew Wilson with the Pearson Teachers’ Union in Montreal says that a “number of teachers” have brought up concerns about aerosols in schools.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve heard a lot of from teachers is that they don’t feel that our buildings are designed for this kind of existence, like where we’re worried about the air that we’re breathing,” he said.
Where ventilation is not possible, the experts behind the letter say portable air filtration units that filter bioaerosols should be set up.
The World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada have recognized that COVID-19 can spread by aerosols — tiny, light particles expelled when people cough, sneeze or breathe that stay suspended in the air for longer periods of time.
But the experts say that hasn’t resulted in better protective measures for health workers and other essential service workers.
“Prevention messages from provincial governments continue to be deficient,” say the authors of the open letter sent Monday and available at the website masks4canada.org.
“They do not adequately inform the population about the risks of airborne transmission in shared room air. Employers in workplaces and public institutions must be fully aware of the risks of aerosol transmission and the measures that can be taken to properly limit these risks.”
The letter pushes for reopening plans that include clear ventilation standards for businesses with higher risk of aerosol transmission such as restaurants, bars and gyms.
The experts also want assurances that fit-tested respirators are available to all high-risk healthcare workers and essential workers.
But they also warn that private homes and businesses can be a source of aerosol spread, too, and want officials to stress the importance of mitigating spread by routinely opening windows, turning on vented range hoods and bathroom fans, and masking even when distanced.
In a statement, Quebec’s Health Ministry said it is interested in aerosol transmission and that it is awaiting two reports concerning it in the coming days before deciding what to do.
— With files from Global News’ Dan Spector