Scientists are calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rapidly set standards to limit airborne transmission of the coronavirus in high-risk environments such as meat packers and prisons.
The surge comes almost a year after research showed that the virus can spread through tiny droplets called aerosols, which can linger in stagnant air indoors and be inhaled.
Action against air standards is now even more urgent as vaccination efforts are sluggish, more contagious virus variants are circulating in the US, and the rate of Covid-19 infection and death remains high despite a recent drop in new cases, the scientists said in a letter to the government officials of Biden.
The CDC issued new guidelines on Friday for reopening schools, but the guidelines only temporarily referred to improved ventilation as a precaution against the spread of viruses. The World Health Organization was slow to acknowledge that the virus could linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, and did not accept that conclusion until July after 239 experts publicly urged the organization to do so.
The 13 experts who wrote the letter – including several who advised Mr Biden during the transition – called on the administration to mitigate the risks in various workplaces by calling for a combination of mask wear and environmental measures, including better ventilation. They want the CDC to recommend the use of quality masks like N95 respirators to protect workers at high risk of infection, many of whom are black people, the segment of the population hardest hit by the epidemic in the United States.
Currently, health care workers rely primarily on surgical masks, which are not as effective as N95 masks against aerosol transmission of the virus.
Mr Biden has directed the occupational health and safety agency, which sets workplace requirements, to issue temporary emergency standards for Covid-19 by March 15, including those for ventilation and masks.
However, OSHA will only impose standards that are supported by the CDC’s guidelines, said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University and one of the signatories.
(Dr. Michaels ran OSHA during the Obama administration; the agency has not had a permanent leader since his departure.)
“Until the CDC makes some changes, OSHA will have difficulty changing the recommendations as it understands that government must be consistent,” said Dr. Michaels. “And CDC has always been considered the lead infectious disease agency.”