Surface tests and air filters fight coronavirus in buildings

Instead of testing for the coronavirus by swabbing people, imagine that you test the surfaces folks touch in places like classrooms, offices, restaurants and government buildings.

Sergey Balashov’s company EMSL Analytical, Inc. ran some lab test samples from a courthouse in New Jersey and got some positive hits, he says.

“And one came straight from the judge’s chamber. That was actually scary, I must say. That clearly indicates that that area has to be cleaned perfect,” said Sergey.

Like many labs, the ESML facilities in Cinnaminson test for virus particles, but with a focus on buildings. As New Jersey moves to reopen shops, schools and more, the tests can identify small hot zones where perhaps the so-called deep cleaning wasn’t quite as thorough as advertised.

“I’ve been shocked, actually, seeing them. Because, again, we’ve receiving samples which are supposed to be post-cleaning specimens. So then you see the coronavirus survived after the cleaning. That’s not good,” Balashov said.

It means having to do a second disinfection. Balashov says coronavirus turns up on surfaces people touch most.

“My first positive was from the light switch. We have seen positives from door knobs. We have seen positives from office desks,” he said.

While some researchers work on developing vaccines to ultimately banish the coronavirus, others try to contain it. Another approach that focuses on buildings uses air filters to intercept virus particles on moisture droplets that are produced when people talk, cough or sneeze.

Steve Devine makes air filters at a company called Camfil in Riverdale. They’re used in air circulation systems at museums, hospitals, and malls like the Mall of America. Think of the filters as a face mask, but for your building.

“We’re trying to clean out the room from the particles, the small droplets, that are actually escaping the edges of the mask, perhaps, or if someone walks into the room wearing their mask improperly or something like that,” Devine said.

Camfil specializes in layered filters called MERV-A that are highly-rated to capture the coronavirus droplets and remain effective even after weeks of use. But in areas with poor air circulation, especially some classrooms, Devine recommends adding a smaller filtering machine.

“You don’t want Mary in the corner, and there’s not much air circulation, and then Joe next to her is shedding virus. That could be a problem,” he said.

Rutgers microbiologist Don Schaffner warns that any device that directs air flow needs to be properly placed.

“Let’s say somebody who’s upstream exhales the virus and then the filtration system pulls the virus toward me; that’s going to put me at greater risk. And so I think we need to think very carefully about what the airflows are in the building. And we want to design these systems in a way that it moves the virus as quickly as possible away from people,” Schaffner said.

Air filters and surface tests for virus particles where people shop, work and go to school won’t replace masks and social distancing. For that we’re going to need a vaccine.