Del. Pamela Queen: Understanding Importance of Indoor Air Quality During COVID-19

Air quality

I am accustomed to receiving calls from frustrated constituents imploring my assistance with tackling bureaucratic obstacles. During this challenging COVID-19 health crisis, the calls are more frequent, the hurdles more complex and the sense of urgency is heightened.

So, when an anxious caller — my uncle who is not a constituent — urged me to bring attention to the lack of guidance on proven indoor air quality strategies to mitigate the spread of this novel coronavirus, my interest was piqued. We’ve learned from the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore City and in other low-income neighborhoods that living conditions in homes can pose immediate serious health risks due to germs, mold, mites and viruses causing asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions.

As a master electrician and retired heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer at a local hospital, my uncle was aggravated that proven ventilation strategies commonly used in health care facilities, were not touted to lessen COVID-19 contagion versus outlandish treatments such as ingesting disinfectants or taking Clorox baths. He expects that since I am a state official I can spur dialogue and influence implementation of established ventilation strategies and standards prevalently used at health care facilities to be adopted for congregate facilities with close living quarters such as nursing homes, senior living facilities, prisons and jails.

Ventilation guidance from the Facilities Guidelines Institute and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers outline specific requirements for health care facilities. When properly applied, these ventilation standards are effective in preventing infection. But, when not properly designed and ventilated, HVAC systems in health care facilities can spread pathogens throughout the facility causing patients with compromised immune systems to become more susceptible to infection or other health risks.

In health care facilities, HVAC systems are built to keep the indoor air quality safe for patients and control infections using filtration with either positive or negative air pressure to move air from one location to another through duct work. The purpose of positive pressure is to ensure airborne pathogens do not contaminate a patient, equipment and supplies in a given room.

Del. Pamela E. Queen (D-Montgomery)

With positive pressure, extra air is pumped into rooms to push contaminates away from entering. Whereas, negative pressure sucks air out of the room to pull any potential contaminants out to the outside air. Negative room pressure is an isolation technique used to prevent cross-contamination from room to room. In addition to air flow strategies, high quality filters are needed to help reduce and eliminate contaminants from entering a building, and eliminate larger particles from recirculating in a facility. High efficiency particulate air filters are able to remove submicron particles, including some bacteria and viruses, from the airstream.

Applying these ventilation and air filtration methods are more important now as efforts to reduce the spread of this coronavirus are paramount.

We’ve known indoor air quality maintenance is critical in protecting persons in congregate facilities and high risk groups such as infants, elder adults, immune-compromised individuals, pregnant women and people with chronic respiratory disorders from getting sick.

Yet, as protocols, processes and procedures are implemented to combat COVID-19, little to no education on the benefits of improving indoor air quality are underscored, especially for nursing homes and adult living facilities, prisons and jails, and congregate facilities of high-risk individuals.

Proper HVAC maintenance reduces the spread of allergens, toxins and pathogens to diminish the spread of infectious diseases. Keeping systems clean and sanitary is an important aspect of HVAC design and maintenance.

This is a time for greater emphasis on the merits of improved indoor air quality – it’s time for HVAC systems to matter.

— DEL. PAMELA E. QUEEN

The writer is a Democrat representing Montgomery County’s District 14. She serves on the House Economic Matters Committee.