How to use ventilation, air filters, and climate control to reduce coronavirus transmission this holiday season

Table with winter holiday decorations, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a mask.
Table with winter holiday decorations, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a mask.
Image credit: Helin Loik-Tomson.

As we’re driven indoors by chilly winds and shorter days, Covid-19 cases are continuing to rise. Most of us will be spending the holidays alone this year, in group Zoom calls, or with the same family members we already share our daily lives with.

However, some of us have circumstances that require us to risk exposure to the virus. If you fall into this category, you can minimize your risk by thinking about the safety of your air.

You’ve probably already heard that it’s important to increase air circulation when you're indoors. But beyond the suggestions that you upgrade to the best HVAC filter and throw open every door and window, there isn’t much useful advice out there. …


Stomach acid helps protect us against food-borne pathogens, but what about Covid-19? Here’s the science behind the popular rumor that stomach acid kills coronavirus.

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Photo by Joshua Rappeneker | Flickr

It started as a viral tip a few months ago: Drink water every 15 minutes to wash the coronavirus into your stomach — where the acid will kill it.

There’s a seductive logic to this idea which helped it spread like wildfire. And although numerous articles and the WHO were quick to label it a baseless rumor, the visual memory of a virus-melting acid bath in our stomachs is pretty hard to forget. …


A microbiologist’s tips for restaurant dining during a pandemic — for those who can’t stomach another meal at home

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Photo by Marco Verch | Flickr

Right now, for most of us across the U.S., restaurants only exist as bittersweet memories. Clinking glasses, lively conversation, bottomless mimosas, and vanishing dirty dishes are all things of the past. However, as the coronavirus lockdowns lift, restaurants will start reopening their doors… and the siren song of our favorite restaurants will call out to us once again.

If you’re reading this article, you probably like to play it safe. But maybe your friends are planning a night out after months apart. …


A simple guide to the unexpected ways our mouths spread the coronavirus — and what we can do to contain it

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Photo by Koldunova_Anna

True or false: You can catch COVID-19 just by smelling someone’s garlic breath.

Well, according to some scientists, yes. But even though infected people might become coronavirus sprinkler systems while breathing or talking, it doesn’t mean we should all live in fear of the air around us. Decades of research and librarians can both agree that certain ways of breathing and talking are superior to others. And when we return to work and socializing, if we stay smart and aware of how this virus spreads, we can hopefully keep SARS-CoV-2 out of our bodies.

Not all the tips in this article are practical, but they’re meant to get you thinking about solutions to some of our biggest social challenges ahead. Many people transmit this virus without having symptoms or knowing they’re sick, which is why all of us need to decrease the spread of our germs. …


A look at the mistakes Americans made while wearing homemade cloth masks to protect against the Spanish flu, according to the secretary of the California State Board of Health in 1918

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An American Red Cross worker wears a gauze mask during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. Photo: Paul Thompson/FPG/Stringer/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now recommended that all Americans wear masks as we live through this pandemic. And so, like our relatives who faced the influenza pandemic 102 years ago, we are now covering our noses and mouths in public with cloth masks — because that’s what’s available. Except this time, our masks will be better (we hope) and definitely more colorful.

Although there is evidence to show that surgical masks and N95 respirators offered significant protection of medical workers against contracting SARS (a closely related coronavirus), we are now moving into uncharted territory by using homemade cloth face masks to protect against Covid-19. …


Understanding droplets, aerosols, and why fabric masks are a good choice for the general public

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Photo by Drazen Zigic.

Critics of surgical and fabric masks often highlight their inability to filter aerosols. However, many experts believe that larger droplets are a much bigger concern when it comes to COVID-19 protection. This is a microscopic examination of both arguments.

If you’ve ever sneezed on a shiny computer screen or blank sheet of paper, you’ve probably noticed that spittle spray comes in a wide variety of sizes. …


A microbiologist’s frank, no-nonsense guide to keeping SARS-CoV-2 out of your body

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Photo by fokusgood.

In case you haven’t heard, some are suggesting that we’ll be partying, eating out, and going back to work in a few weeks. Yes, this could be a disaster. However, whenever we do restart the economy, we should do it safely. And one of the best ways to do that is for everyone to start thinking and behaving like a microbiologist.

My background is in environmental microbiology — which means I’ve spent over a decade thinking about unseen microbes lurking in the environment around us. …


Despite hearing that face masks “don’t work,” you probably haven’t seen any strong evidence to support that claim. That’s because it doesn’t exist.

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Photo by author.

Note from the author on April 19th, 2020: This article was written in mid-March, when face masks were widely shamed and prohibited in the United States. I had three specific people in mind when I published this piece: 1. A doctor who was mocked for wearing a mask by other doctors who believed the popular mantra that masks “don’t work.” 2. A hospital worker who was prohibited from wearing a mask. 3. An airline attendant with a compromised immune system who was prohibited from wearing a mask while working.

Since its publication, this article has been quoted by writers in New York Magazine, CNN and other news sources. Instead of changing this article’s structure to reflect the shifting conversation about face masks, I ask the reader to keep in mind the original objective of this article: To defend a person’s right to wear a mask. Although most of the following article remains unchanged from its original publication, a “*” denotes any newly added information. …

About

Adrien Burch, PhD

Happily sifting through academic research so you don’t have to. Microbiologist, educator, entrepreneur, writer. (Yale, UC Berkeley)

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