Offices, schools, restaurants and shops are reopening across the U.S. while the coronavirus remains as prevalent as ever.
Scientists are learning more about this novel virus as the pandemic wears on, including how it’s spread and how to kill it. As more is learned about COVID-19, tools are being developed and implemented to make spaces safer.
While many products may reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, none are fail-proof solutions. Some target COVID-19 particles on surfaces, some kill or trap large and small virus particles in the air.
Can a building truly be COVID-proof? A look at the latest virus-busting technology.
Here is a look at 12 products businesses are using to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.
UV light wands
Disinfectant sprays, wipes and sanitizers are good for surfaces like tables and doorknobs. But what about items that can’t get wet?
That was the dilemma at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids and Lansing. When the bookstores first reopened after the pandemic, employees were letting books touched by customers sit out for 48 hours before putting them back on the shelves.
With an ultraviolet wand, that wait time is cut from hours to seconds, said Operations Manager Tim Smith.
Employees at Schuler Books wave the ultraviolet wand over each side of an item, 20 seconds per pass. They also use the tool on phones, keyboards, countertops and more, Smith said.
It costs about $100, is roughly two feet long and uses the same type of UV light as doctor’s offices and hospitals, Smith said.
“There’s still so much unknown – so it really feels like the best course of action is to be more cautious even than what’s recommended,” Smith said.
Microwave-style UV light boxes
Similar to the UV wands, some businesses are buying UV light boxes to disinfectant items.
Matthew Macchiarolo’s staff uses one at the Town Peddler Craft and Antique Mall – throwing in things like pens, tape measures, phones, masks, scissors, rolls of tape and more.
“Anytime a customer touches something, we put it in the sanitizer,” Macchiarolo said.
It takes about five minutes to run the machine, he said, and it cost around $400.
Whether it’s a UV light box or wand, such products aren’t necessarily standardized, said Dennis Cunningham, corporate medical director for infection prevention at McLaren Health Care.
“They may or may not give some protection,” Cunningham said.
But it can’t hurt to try them, he said.
Cunningham has a similar device of his own for personal use, a PhoneSoap box where you put your cell phone inside and it disinfects it with UV light. They run from $80 to $400 online.
Most businesses have credit card machines with the chip readers. But some smaller businesses, like Town Peddler, don’t always have affordable access to the latest technology.
Macchiarolo had new credit card machines installed during the pandemic, however. While it comes at a cost, it doesn’t require employees to physically handle the credit cards like the old machines did.
Investing in no-touch technology is also the goal at North Peak Brewing in Traverse City, as the business had no-touch toilets and sinks installed.
Some restaurants have QR codes to scan to view menus or have paper throwaway menus instead of the laminated reusable ones. Ketchup packets replace ketchup bottles. Foot-operated door pulls eliminate the need to touch germ-laden door handles.
The fewer touch points, the better.
Disinfectants and UV light are reactive solutions – tackling viruses once they’re already on surfaces. Antimicrobial sprays and coatings allow the surface itself to attack viruses the second they come in contact.
Michael Fisher started a new company during the pandemic called Surface Security, where they go into office spaces, sanitize them and then spray surfaces with these antimicrobial coatings.
“It is essentially like a molecular bed of swords to microbes,” Fisher said.
The coating is supposed to be able to kill viruses the second a virus lands on the surface, but the spray must be reapplied every three to six months. Fisher said it typically costs less than a floor waxing.
“There are people going out there, spraying water and slapping their sticker on peoples’ doors, saying, ‘OK, it’s sanitized,'” Fisher said. “Make sure whoever you’re talking to has a track record and is doing what they say they’re going to do.”
Similar to the antimicrobial spray, you can buy surface covers that allegedly fight off virus particles upon contact. NanoSeptic makes a variety of products that can go over surfaces.
For example, NanoSeptic surfaces were placed on soap dispensers, sink handles, door pulls and other surfaces in the bathrooms at Michigan International Speedway for events this summer.
NanoSeptic also makes surface covers for mouse pads, tissue boxes, elevator buttons and more.
A 20-pack of door handle sleeves costs $55. Products from the company are in such high demand right now, shipping is estimated to take four weeks.
Think of these as a more efficient way to disinfect surfaces.
Foggers are becoming more popular during the pandemic, especially in places like gyms. The devices can be stationary and mist out disinfectant across a space or can be carried and sprayed manually.
Wayne State University has purchased eight electrostatic fogging devices, said Rob Davenport, associate vice president of facilities. They’ll be used in athletic facilities and weight rooms twice per day if such spaces are allowed to be open.
The school will also use the foggers in areas where a COVID-positive person might have been, Davenport said.
Foggers can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
The aforementioned products are meant to disinfect surfaces. But a new piece of technology that looks like an airport body scanner, called the Genatek GT 1000, targets viruses on the humans themselves.
Once a person walks inside the Fenton-based product, it does a temperature check, detects if you’re wearing a mask, dispenses hand sanitizer and sprays a full-body sanitation mist in a matter of 15 seconds. It costs $24,000 fully loaded.
A metal detector can also be implemented into the machine, per the Genatek website.
The FirePlace Bar and Grille in Fenton is one of the first places to rent the all-in-one tool to use on its entering customers.
The company also has a product called the Genatek GT 100 with similar features, but is designed for school buses and public transportation.
All of the above products target the virus on surfaces. But every virus particle could be removed from surfaces, and there could still be a high risk of spreading COVID-19.
Because infected humans are still exhaling the virus into the air.
Scientists believe the novel coronavirus is spread in three main ways: Through fomites when droplets fall on surfaces and people touch the surfaces, via large droplets spread when people are in close contact and through tiny droplets or aerosols that can stay suspended in the air for hours.
Surfaces were the main target at the start of the pandemic, but now scientists are learning the virus more commonly spreads through the air.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says getting COVID-19 from surfaces is “conceivable, but very unlikely.” It’s overwhelmingly spread through the respiratory route, he said.
Therefore, attacking virus particles in the air is equally if not more important than disinfecting surfaces.
One solution is to install better HVAC filters. Filters are given a MERV rating based on how small of particles they can trap – so a MERV 1 can only trap larger particles while a MERV 16 is designed to trap particles smaller than 1 micrometer.
HEPA filters are the best at trapping small particles and have MERV ratings of 17-20. They’re most common in hospital settings. But even the strongest filters aren’t COVID-19 proof.
“The HEPA filters, I am not convinced that they are of any benefit,” Cunningham said. “And my reason for saying that is, the pores in a HEPA filter, they usually have an opening of about 0.3 micrometers. The virus is smaller than that, so the virus can still pass through them.”
A COVID-19 particle on its own is about 0.1 micrometers, said Jesse Capecelatro, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, who’s also on the school’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Committee.
But the particles are spread when attached to large and small water droplets, typically weighing between 0.1 and 10 micrometers. So HEPA filters can catch most of the droplets – there’s just no guarantees when it comes to tiny droplets between 0.1 to 0.3 micrometers.
“If you breathe in one (COVID-19 particle), your immune system can probably fight it off,” Capecelatro said. “If you breathe in 10,000, you’re probably going to get sick. But what is that magic number? What’s the minimum viral dose? That is still unknown.”
The current estimate in the scientific community is that it takes 100 to 1,000 infected particles to infect a person, Capecelatro said.
The other issue with filters is, not all HVAC systems are built to handle stronger filters. They also make air conditioning and heat units work harder, upping energy costs.
HEPA filters are typically installed inside the HVAC system, but there are also portable ones. The hang up is, the portable filters can’t access as much of the air supply in a room as the HVAC system can – therefore leaving much of the air untreated.
A Livonia-based magnet company has concocted a new idea to filter the air for COVID-19 particles without needed to break into your HVAC system.
The new product, called Airotrust, is a magnetic filter housing designed to fit over a cold air return connecting to the HVAC system. They’re designed for buildings with ceiling tiles.
“It’s as easy as putting a magnet on your refrigerator,” said Matt Carr, president of the parent company, Storch Products. “I think we’ve got a home run here.”
A key to filtration is changing out the filter regularly. Airotrust sets up customers with a subscription service to receive the new filters when they need to be replaced every few months.
Carr said the new product will start shipping out later this month. They cost roughly $200.
The key to the Airotrust is its visibility. Companies can put in fancy filters behind the scenes, but that doesn’t give peace of mind to customers and employees like this system does, Carr said.
The idea started out as a solution to better filter air at the Storch Products manufacturing facility, Carr said. It later clicked that this could be useful during the pandemic for workplaces, schools and other buildings.
“There’s a lot of people that were scared to come back to work. There’s a lot of people who haven’t returned to work,” Carr said. “And they’re wondering, ‘What are you doing for me?'”
Think back to a time when someone farted in your car. The best way to eliminate the smell was to open the windows, get some fresh air inside and dilute the odor.
It’s not that much different when it comes to COVID-19 particles, experts say.
That’s why outdoor spaces are less risky than indoor ones when it comes to spreading the virus – the COVID-19 particles are dispersed into the air outside and aren’t recirculated through vents and fans like they can be indoors.
The low-tech option is to leave doors and windows open. The high-tech route is to alter your HVAC system to bring in more outside air instead of just recirculating the same air inside.
“As much fresh air you bring in, contaminated air is leaving,” Capecelatro said.
There’s a cost to that, though. Outside air requires more heating and cooling, which once again hikes up the energy bill.
A Minnesota-based company called 75F taps into this idea, claiming it can set up buildings to be in “Epidemic Mode.” With the tap of a touchscreen, building managers can control how much outside air is coming in at a given time.
Many smaller buildings require manual controls to change these ratios. What makes 75F unique is, the system knows when a part of a building is empty and brings in 100% outside air without conditioning the air for temperature, reducing spending on energy costs.
Such a system costs about $200 to $300 per month for mid-sized buildings between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet.
UV light again – but targeting the air
UV light isn’t just good for killing virus particles on surfaces. Businesses like North Peak are having UV light sterilizers installed in their HVAC systems.
“It’s really hard to get rid of (COVID-19) in the air,” Cunningham said. “High-powered ultraviolet lights can do it, but really nothing else.”
Locating UV lights in the HVAC system is smart, industry leaders say, as that’s the spot where the light can access the largest amounts of air in a building.
Researchers at U of M are still studying how much UV light it takes to kill COVID-19 particles, how long the air needs to be exposed to it and other health risks that could come with it, Capecelatro said.
Businesses are spending thousands of dollars on UV lights, stronger filters, special sprays and sanitizing boxes.
Yet, a $2 piece of cloth is still touted as the top solution by many experts.
“Right now, the best thing to do is to wear a mask,” Davenport, from Wayne State, said. “While all these measures within the facilities from an HVAC perspective are important, masking is the gold standard right now.”
When we breathe, a plume of particles is emitted, Capecelatro said. A mask will trap many of those particles and reduce the momentum and reach of the rest.
Buildings can install a host of new measures – but controlling the human side is just as important.
“Thankfully, what we know works is not very difficult,” Capecelatro said. “Bring in fresh air, avoid overcrowding, minimize exposure and wear masks.”
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.
For more data on COVID-19 in Michigan, visit https://www.mlive.com/coronavirus/data/.
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