How airborne is Covid-19? Like cigarette smoke spreading in a room

Filtering pathogens from the air is a necessary 1st step to prevent infection, reduce ill-health and absenteeism and keep workers safe at work


I CONTRACTED the Covid-19 virus from my workplace earlier this year, as the administration of my office did not believe in the effectiveness and operational capabilities of staff working from home (WFH). Plus, the priority to WFH was given to those who were with children under the age of 12. Since I am childless, I was being perceived to not have the urgency or need to WFH.

I was quarantined at Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (MEAPS), Selangor, from Jan 5-12 this year. And I was actually expected to return to work on Jan 13, but fortunately the Malaysian government made the call to reimpose the Movement Control Order (MCO 2.0). Due to my slow recovery state, I worked from home throughout the MCO 2.0 period.

Majority of the people at my workplace thought that Covid-19 patients detained at the Covid-19 Quarantine and Low-risk Treatment Centre at MAEPS would immediately be back on their feet like a normal healthy person (physically, spiritually and mentally) the moment they were released. Well, that is a very wrong and misguided perception.

Upon my return to the office, I was very surprised to observe how the standard operating procedures (SOPs) recommended by the Ministry of Health were being taken very lightly. I came back to work officially on Feb 27 as I was given long weeks of medical leave by a respiratory specialist as I had inhaled the bleach fume from my office room and floor.

Initially, I went back to work on Jan 21 as I had work waiting on my desk. I did not know that the office had used the building cleaners to sanitise my working area using Clorox while I was at MAEPS. While they were sanitising my office room and floor, the air conditioner was running. And once they were done sanitising my room, the door and the windows of my room were shut tight.

It didn’t take long for me to be in the state of an anaphylactic shock. It was less than 10 minutes sitting at my desk that my chest started to tighten up and my saliva was gathering in my mouth, and later drooling uncontrollably over my lips. I could feel the swelling of my tongue and throat. I went into panic mode and rushed out of the building. It was a good thing that I managed to get a hold of my good friend and she tried her best to calm me down.

My husband rushed me to University of Malaya Specialist Centre, and there I found out that my lungs, due to Covid-19, could not tolerate the bleach fume exuded by the Clorox used to sanitise my room. My health went downhill for weeks right after that incident, and I had to be dependent of a heavy-duty inhaler. I was later diagnosed with Covid-19 bronchitis. Plus, I had to go through a myriad of medical examinations to rule out other dangerous possibilities, such as having blood clots in my lungs as I was having severe difficulty to breathe.

When Selangor came under MCO recently, I remembered clearly the cynical remarks and smirks given by the head of my department saying that since our office was located in Kuala Lumpur (KL), the WFH facility was not

applicable. I contested his remarks by making it clear that the majority of the staff was coming from Selangor, and most of us were from the District of Petaling (Shah Alam, Klang and Petaling Jaya) where the Covid-19 cases were soaring angrily.

The possibility for any one of us to contract the virus is really high as the virus is no longer being spread via droplets only, but also the virus is now airborne.

But unfortunately, my concerns were dismissed and ridiculed, and everyone was required to come to work as usual. However, things changed when KL came under MCO. The administration of my workplace had no choice but to allow us to WFH on a rotation basis.

As of May 23, three officers (including their family members) and a support staff from my department were tested positive. I did my swab on May 12 after one of the officers informed the office’s WhatsApp group on May 10 that her entire family was positive. And since then, the virus is seen to gradually, like a domino, weed people out at the agency where I am working.

Despite being tested negative for the first PCR swab test, the nightmare of living my quarantine days at MAEPS and coping with the Covid-19 viral myalgia just came crashing into my mind. I am terrified.

That emotional transition — from fear and uncertainty to gradual acclimatisation — is likely to happen again with Covid-19. H1N1 is a very different disease than Covid-19; it was far less deadly and barely disrupted most people’s dayto-day lives. But it’s one way to picture what the social trajectory out of a pandemic can look like. Right now, Covid-19 is still killing people all over the world — the pandemic is still viscerally real

Since last year, several studies have found that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 spreads mainly through the air. Yet there have also been other studies, including a recent one funded by the World Health Organisation, that have found the evidence inconclusive. Now, a team of experts has looked at available research and published their assessment in The Lancet that there is strong, consistent evidence that the primary transmission route of SARS-CoV-2 is indeed airborne.

The US Centres of Disease Control (CDC) on May 7, 2021, issued a new advisory regarding the transmission of coronavirus disease and highlighted that there are three primary ways in which a person can contract Covid-19.

The CDC said the virus spreads primarily by inhalation, deposition and touching. The CDC advisory said when one inhales the air carrying very small fine droplets or aerosol particles containing the virus, one gets infected.

It highlights that the risk of transmission is greatest within 3ft to 6ft (one metre to two metre) of an infected person as the amount of these droplets are very fine in nature. It said these droplets spread through exhalation during activities such as quiet breathing, speaking, singing, exercise, coughing, sneezing and transmitting the infection. This means that in enclosed spaces or areas which are poorly ventilated, there are increased chances of this disease spreading from one person to another.

Airborne does not mean it is in the air and wherever you are you can catch it. If there is Covid-19 positive person in a small room or an enclosed space which lacks ventilation and the person coughs, the aerosol remains suspended in the air for 30 minutes to one hour.

The Covid-19 pandemic has almost overnight changed the working practices of millions of people around the world. For many people, WFH has become routine for several months, while those who have continued in their workplace have had to follow new working practices and procedures aimed at preventing the transmission of infection.

Anyone returning to their workplace — and to educational institutions, cafés, restaurants and shops — will be nervous about becoming infected when they come into closer contact with other people in public areas. Everyone is aware of the risks of infection from airborne particles and the guidelines for social distancing.

Keeping a set distance apart, however, may not be enough to prevent contaminated particles from transferring from an infected person to others. Research has shown that the smallest particles can travel farther and remain airborne for much longer than previously thought.

This means air hygiene is a crucial factor in protecting people in the workplace and other indoor environments, and should be included in the package of measures businesses take to prevent transmission of Covid-19.

It’s also important for employees to see that their air quality is being improved. In an international survey of office workers commissioned by Rentokil Initial in March 2020, over two-thirds of survey respondents said they would feel cared for by their employer if indoor air quality were being monitored or regulated.

As the spread of Covid-19 begins with infected respiratory particles, filtering pathogens from the air will be seen by employers and staff as a reassuring and necessary first step to prevent infection, reduce ill-health and absenteeism and keep them safe at work.

JN Ismail,
Shah Alam, Selangor.

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.