In a meeting with residents Thursday afternoon, officials from Public Health and the University of New Brunswick said there might be a slight issue with the ventilation system in Magee House, according to those who live in the building.
Those living in the apartment-style residence at the University of New Brunswick have been isolating in their units since Saturday, when a second case of COVID-19 was identified in the building, due to concerns over possible community spread. As of Friday, Public Health said 12 cases are linked to the outbreak and that they are the B.1.167 variant, first detected in India.
Violet Eliza Souix, who lives in the building, says previous concerns about ventilation brought up by residents were dismissed, only to have Public Health acknowledge there was a slight risk on Thursday afternoon.
“We had asked a few times, we were a little bit worried about it and we were told either don’t worry about it or that it had already been checked,” Sioux said.
“Yesterday we found out, as with many things we felt we had voiced earlier on, there is a slight risk with it.”
Residents were not given details about what the issue is, but have been recommended to keep windows open in the apartment at all times.
A spokesperson for the university says the risk is deemed “minimal.”
“A New Brunswick Public Health engineer has been working with the vendor of the ventilation system to assess the risk of contamination from recirculated air. They have determined the risk is minimal,” said acting communications director Heather Campbell.
Some within the building have begun taping garbage bags over bathroom exhaust vents over worries that could be the source of the issue, saying it’s common to get strong smells coming from other apartments through the vents.
Sioux’s fiancé, Barett Poley, says a lack of transparency from the university and Public Health has been frustrating to deal with.
“It’s frustrating to hear, ‘We have it under control, there’s no issue with the ventilation,’ and then to hear four days later, ‘There is an issue with the ventilation but we can’t tell you anything about it,'” Poley said.
At Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing, Dr. Jennifer Russell said that there hasn’t been any apartment-to-apartment spread since the building locked down, but Public Health is waiting on the next round of test results to be sure.
“We’re really delving into that at this point in time and mapping out the airflow and mapping out where we saw the transmission between apartments, and so between the ventilation versus fomites and surfaces, the next set of tests will really help us nail that down,” Russell said.
Notes from a meeting between Public Health, the university and residents from earlier this week say officials believe the virus was being transmitted through surface contact, with laundry facilities acting as a vector. Positive cases are also spread across four different floors, according to notes from that same meeting.
Colin Furness, a Toronto based epidemiologist, says the primary way people are infected with COVID-19 is through large droplets, but aerosolized particles are becoming an increasing concern. The viral load is lower in smaller droplets, but the reason variants are more contagious is that people can become infected from lower viral loads.
“Being more contagious means a lower viral dose or lower exposure time is more likely to get you infected,” Furness said.
“The bar for the viral dose that you need to get infected is lowering. That’s what makes these variants of concern concerning.”
Furness says it’s often hard to tell if someone has been infected due to droplets, aerosols or surface contact (fomites), particularly in apartment settings.
“If you’ve ever walked down the hallway of an apartment building and you can smell other people’s cooking, you know that air and particles in the air is making it’s way from people’s units into hallways,” he said.
“When you see outbreaks at things like an apartment complex you could say it could be elevator buttons, it could be door handles and in a couple of cases it certainly could be, but I think the thing to be particularly concerned about is aerosols moving through the air circulation system from place to place.”
The way to lessen that risk, Furness says, is by pumping more outside air into HVAC systems, opening windows and trying to ensure better seals between apartments.