September is coming.
And with it, more COVID. That’s the truth of it.
Universities, colleges, public schools and daycares will feel the impact of the next crop of COVID variants one student and one employee at a time. The “back to normal” story we were fed was a lie. It was convenient. It was popular. It felt good. But it was a lie.
Dropping masking protections was a mistake. Refusing to install more air purifiers was a mistake. Making rapid testing harder to obtain was a mistake.
Here’s what we need to do to make September safe.
First, we need clear instructions from government and public health leadership: COVID isn’t over. It is mostly spread in the air. Outdoors is safer. Indoors is less safe. Protections are a social responsibility and we all have to participate. TV ads. Radio Ads. Social Media. Transit posters. Highway signs. The works.
Second, we need to provide free N95-class masks to everyone. Different sizes for different people because one size does not fit all. Buy them from Canadian manufacturers. School boards, colleges, universities and companies need to set up long term supply contracts.
Third, we need rapid testing and a return to more PCR testing.
Fourth, we need daily public data updates on testing results. Broken down by municipality and school. That includes RAT, PCR and wastewater.
Fifth, we need to focus on indoor air quality. That means putting portable air purifiers in our daycares, classrooms, restaurants, gyms, change rooms, hair salons and other places with frequent unmasking. HEPA when possible but MERV13 works, too. Provide a list of air purifiers that your school board currently uses to parents and encourage them to donate more on an equitable “one for our school and one for another school” basis. Follow the Peterborough and Toronto Public Library leads and provide CO2 monitors so that individuals can track down rooms with bad ventilation.
Sixth, provide remote options for everyone. People are going to get sick. We want to encourage them to stay home if they have even a suspicion of being sick. That means limiting in-person final exams and forced in-person group work. That means providing pay sick leave and bosses not being pains-in-the-ass about it.
Remember: you might not have gotten super sick the last time you caught COVID. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get visibly sick the next time you catch it. Think of the children. Many can’t wear masks. Plus, kids under five still aren’t vaccinated, while older kids and adults who did get vaccinated haven’t been able to get the next booster. Think of all the people with fragile health in our long-term care facilities, but also who live all around us, who want to work and go to school but can’t do so because the rest of us aren’t doing the responsible thing and taking COVID seriously.
I’m not an expert. I’m just an engineer and parent who’s been paying attention to the people who keep being right about this pandemic. It’s time we all did.
James Andrew Smith is a Professional Engineer and Associate Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department of York University's Lassonde School, with degrees in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Alberta and McGill University. Previously a program director in biomedical engineering, his research background spans robotics, locomotion, human birth and engineering education. While on sabbatical in 2018-19 with his wife and kids he lived in Strasbourg, France and he taught at the INSA Strasbourg and Hochschule Karlsruhe and wrote about his personal and professional perspectives. James is a proponent of using social media to advocate for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion as well as evidence-based applications of research in the public sphere. You can find him on Twitter. Originally from Québec City, he now lives in Toronto, Canada.
Note: I am not an HVAC, PPE or public health expert. While I have an engineering background (degrees in both EE and MecE) and have done work in Biomedical Engineering, I am not formally trained in either HVAC, PPE or public health. If you're looking for professional design or testing advice or services, please hire a professional engineer who is an expert in the area of interest.
Conflicts of interest: none that I am aware of. I do not work for or have financial interest in any PPE, HVAC or public health company or agency. While I have communicated with companies and employees at PPE and HVAC companies, I do not work for any, nor have I received money or contracts from them. All products that I have received were paid for either personally or through my employer or were acquired through friends or family (none of which work for a PPE or HVAC company to my knowledge) -- none have been donated or loaned to me by manufacturers, suppliers or distributors.
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