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By Paul Taylor, former FEMA regional director
Despite the opportunity provided by a deluge of recent federal funding for COVID-19 and infrastructure, we are failing to properly mitigate the single greatest current and future threat in the United States – the spread of infectious disease. To underline this shortcoming, even when not accounting for deaths from COVID-19, one in three Americans die of complications related to infectious disease.
With the added pressure of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has ravaged the country for over a year, we should be addressing this threat head-on. Yet, our decision-makers and media remain paralyzed by the politics of masks and vaccinations, unable to look broadly at all the other ways we could help keep our economy, schools, government, and long-term care facilities open and free of diseases.
Masks and shots aren’t enough
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have consistently recommended that masks and vaccines are only part of a comprehensive protection strategy to combat the dangerous pathogens in the air and on surfaces all around us. Because their effectiveness is impacted by human error and/or compliance, masks and vaccines, without other complementary methods of disinfection and mitigation, can only limit the spread of disease so much.
The reason these two tactics alone can never completely prevent the spread of disease is that they do nothing to eliminate or remove pathogens from our occupied spaces. We have known for some time now that the primary means of transmission of COVID-19 and many other serious infectious diseases is through the air. Consequently, the CDC recommends providing clean air in enclosed, occupied areas as the best means for controlling infections. So far, there are only three evidence-based methods for doing this: increasing ventilation to swap indoor with outdoor air more frequently, using HEPA filters to repeatedly filter the air inside of spaces, and using UV lights to constantly disinfect air and surfaces. Of those options, UV disinfection technology is highly effective and much less costly, and yet is one of the least utilized mitigation strategies, likely due to misplaced concerns over safety.
A new version of a familiar technology
The recent game-changer in UV technology that makes it such an effective tool in stopping the spread of infectious disease is that Far UV utilizes even narrower wavelengths of UV light (around 222 nm), allowing it to operate safely in a room with human occupants while killing any airborne and surface particles before they can spread from an infected person to anyone else.
Far UV technology has already been installed in some government buildings for over a year, giving it a long track record of success in preventing spread within enclosed high occupancy spaces. Now is the time for school officials and employers to think comprehensively about the infectious disease threat inside their buildings and utilize a layered approach to mitigation and disinfection. The U.S. taxpayers have already provided ample funding to state and local governments, businesses, schools, and other organizations to provide more than just PPE and simple disinfection. They should use this funding to implement a more sophisticated risk mitigation strategy designed to improve the safety of our indoor spaces and protect U.S. citizens now and into the future.
The role of decision-makers
Lawmakers also have a responsibility to seek ways to strengthen building codes in line with this thinking and incorporate nascent healthy building certifications similar to the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) awards available for environmentally responsible building construction and maintenance. New standards for indoor air quality have been updated, but more incentives are needed in order to encourage every building in the country to meet them. Leaders that make informed, responsible decisions now, using readily available government funding, will not only provide safer environments for their employees, students, and families, but will also protect themselves from future criticism or even litigation for failing to act.
Decision-making during a pandemic is difficult, especially for our local leaders. Fortunately, after a year and a half of public health response, we have better tools at our disposal, allowing us to move beyond COVID-19 and prepare ourselves for the next infectious disease threat. While scientific, cost, and safety arguments are all compelling reasons to implement far UV technology as broadly as possible, common sense provides the most important reason: If a far UV light on the ceiling of a room can provide more protection to the occupants than each one of them wearing an N-95 mask, then why shouldn’t that technology also be in our schools, buses, offices and waiting rooms?
Paul Taylor is a retired Colonel with more than twenty years in the U.S. Army, with multiple overseas tours, as well as serving in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. He was most recently the Regional Administrator for FEMA Region 7 in Kansas City, where he was responsible for all federal government disaster response and preparedness activities in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa, including the COVID-19 response. He continues to work in the Emergency Management field in the private sector.