Winter is Coming: 3 Considerations for Addressing COVID-19 Risk This Season

During a global pandemic, it is critical to anticipate future changes to provide and maintain healthy and safe environments.  LJB’s preventive health experts have been helping organizations develop and implement Continuity of Operations Plans and health and safety controls to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and keep organizations running. As we head into the winter months, new elements in the environment make addressing COVID-19 risk even more complex.

LJB’s Health, Safety, and Environment practice leader and pandemic planning expert, Kirk Phillips, highlighted the following concerns for the upcoming winter months during a recent roundtable with Ohio K-12 school superintendents.*

Consideration 1. Community Status

While the numbers aren’t the same everywhere, the reality is that most communities have not achieved a reduction in cases prior to entering cooler and drier weather. In fact, we are entering winter with more cases than at the pandemic’s first wave peak. At the same time, people are becoming weary of following the guidelines and are choosing riskier behaviors, such as eating out, community gatherings, improper use of face coverings, as well as washing less often and for a shorter duration. It is critical to understand the circumstances in your community and address the behaviors that can best influence your numbers. As cases continue to rise and our population generally becomes weary of the COVID environment and its controls, we need to help each other stay focused on the necessary controls and consistently reinforce the use of proper precautions for those we are able to influence. 

Consideration 2. Environmental Factors

Winter air is drier, and as a result, the relative number of aerosols generated per exhalation increases.  This occurs because the small droplets evaporate around the viral particles and leave the virus free to stay lofted in the air. And, to complicate that reality, heating systems generate updrafts that help particles remain lofted longer. While not fully understood by science, evidence shows us many of these same conditions allow some viral particles to remain viable longer on surfaces. SARS, a closely related virus, has shown this to be true and can be assumed to be true for COVID too.  One recommendation is to increase humidity in spaces to combat dry air—potentially raising the humidity level above 50% or close to ASHRAE recommended peak of 65%.  Modifying humidity levels will impact other environmental factors, and all concerns should be reviewed before implementing wholesale changes.

Consideration 3. Human Factors

There are some human factors we can control and some we can’t. For example, in the winter especially, our noses run when we are cold, even though we aren’t sick Viral particles will be in the nasal discharges and when those discharges transfer from face, to hand, to surface we call the viral particles fomites. So, there is a natural increase in the spread of fomites during cold weather. Also, drier air often leads to dry skin, which is naturally itchy and prompts us to touch our faces and eyes more frequently.  This increases our chance of transferring fomites picked up from surfaces into our bodies through our mucous membranes.

And, when it comes to human nature, we are also more likely to huddle together when it’s cold, as well as “closing the gap” when speaking and by choosing indoor activities vs. outdoor ones. This “closeness” of space increased the chance to transmit the COVID virus through respiration. Finally, the increase in holiday and family get togethers, especially when they can’t be held outdoors, increases our overall exposure by exposing us to many people who have had a different community of people they had been exposed to, thereby increasing exposure risk by not a few but orders of magnitude. Most people are not willing to give up their holiday traditions and while together are likely to not comply with the same health and safety controls expected of them when they are at work or school.

The typical recommendations of maintaining 6-foot space, wearing face coverings, limiting close contacts, avoiding touching face and eyes, washing hands frequently, and not putting large groups of people in small spaces can combat these winter trends. However, we need to be extra vigilant in following these controls through the winter months due to the factors above.  

For more information on LJB’s pandemic planning services, call (937) 259-6358 or email COOPsolutions@LJBinc.com.

* See video to hear more about Loveland City Schools’ experience with LJB’s COOP efforts (2:18-22:37), as well as Kirk’s Phillips’ commentary on these winter concerns (29:14-44:59).

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