While I was writing a piece about the Safety Kits earlier this school year, I sent out a fact-checking email to the University. I wondered if they had included any plans to add HEPA filters and update their HVAC systems as part of their COVID-19 protocol. It was a yes or no question; instead, I received an email that was dismissive of ventilation and its ability to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The email, from University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, made a few comments that were concerning. He started by saying that HEPA filters were not needed because the HVAC systems already had a strong rate of exchange. He added that some potential exceptions included “non-hospital clinical areas” such as certain dental areas, which they were evaluating. He then continued:
“There is a general perception that increasing HVAC ventilation air changes and adding or upgrading air filtration may reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Our U-M School of Public Health faculty experts have indicated that these types of HVAC modifications result in small reductions in risk. The greatest reduction in risk comes from reduced density, physical distancing, [face-covering] use, and hygiene, which is why these are emphasized repeatedly by the university.“
In addition to the quote, I was given a guide on HVAC filtering from Michigan which is backed up by other guides on HVAC filtering from the School of Architecture. Based on guidance from an article in the Atlantic, the HVAC systems are up to snuff. Michigan’s systems apparently are filtered twice, the first through a MERV 8 or 10 system, and then through a MERV 13 system.
MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value which shows how many particles are caught and filtered in and out of the filtration system. According to Second Nature, a website that grades the quality of filters, MERV 8 is referred to as “Catch Some”, MERV 11 as “Catch More”, and MERV 13 as “Catch All”. This is a helpful way to think about the effectiveness of these filters. This means that if correct according to the guide I was sent, some of the particles are being caught in the first round of filtration, and most of them are being filtered out in the second round. HEPA filters can catch the rest of the particles in the air remaining. According to the document they are not going to be adding these filters because they are already exchanging air at a high enough rate.
According to Second Nature, a website that grades the quality of filters, MERV 8 is referred to as “Catch Some”, MERV 11 as “Catch More”, and MERV 13 as “Catch All”. This is a helpful way to think about the effectiveness of these filters.
It is good that the University has good HVAC systems and does not feel the need to add HEPA filters. However, there are a few problems with this email and with the guide sent. The first is the use of the phrase “general perception” which is used to dismiss the idea of improving or upgrading any of their HVAC systems. The need for improving ventilation to combat COVID-19 is not a “general perception.” Contracting COVID-19 is significantly more likely indoors. Out of a database of 1200 super-spreader events, only one has happened outdoors. This is because there is not enough exchange of aerosols in the air. A change or update to these systems, or buying an inexpensive HEPA filter, can certainly reduce risk while students are inside the classroom, even if the University already has sufficient or average filtration. This is also the case even if filtration is good. Dismissing this out of hand and focusing instead on giving students insufficient “safety kits” is an ineffective way to focus on combating the virus, especially since the University is offering some in-person classes.
The other problem is that hygiene is listed above ventilation as a cause to worry about. Hygiene is not the main way the virus spreads. As I covered in a previous article, the virus mostly spreads through the air. The virus has not been shown to live on surfaces. While it is possible to spread this virus through contact, it is extremely unlikely.
If the University is leaning on its School of Public Health to justify its false claims then students and parents deserve an explanation.
The other aspect that is troubling is that they indicated that the School of Public Health told them this. The University has leaned on the school of public health for many of its claims, dubious and true. If the University is leaning on its School of Public Health to justify its false claims then students and parents deserve an explanation.
In order to see if this was the case, I contacted Professor Joe Eisenberg, the head of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He understood why the university was pushing hygiene, even if it was not helpful in combating COVID-19. “Good public health messaging is simple.” He went on to explain that there was no downside to pushing hygiene and sanitation. “Overall, it prevents disease, period. It is an effective message to keep high up on people’s list.” He did admit that the transmission was not high but that it was still worth keeping on the radar for other diseases.
He also admitted that while he was not contacted, an occupational health person would have been contacted for advice if it was deemed necessary. I have yet to hear back from the Occupational Health department.
Regardless, it is still frustrating that the University would prioritize this set of measures over ventilation. Ventilation is costly, and it is understandable why the University would have been resistant to the idea of updating their HVAC systems or adding additional HEPA filters. If the University were not having any in-person classes this semester, it would make sense to look at the problem but not feel any need to prioritize ventilation. However, there are in-person classes, and updating these systems can mitigate the spread of the virus drastically. Even if the University has excellent systems already in place, ignoring the subject because they met some checkmarks is not good enough. If the University is serious about keeping students safe, they should be a little more transparent about their ventilation systems and what they are doing to slow the spread of COVID-19 indoors.
If the University were not having any in-person classes this semester, it would make sense to look at the problem but not feel any need to prioritize ventilation. However, there are in-person classes, and updating these systems can mitigate the spread of the virus drastically.
The University also needs to reconsider what they prioritize and why. Hygiene might help, but on such a small-scale that it is not worth much time or energy. Ventilation is one of many different mitigating factors that can help on a large scale. Prioritizing hygiene over more effective measures gives students and faculty a false sense of security, and is not an effective way to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Refusing to be transparent about their efforts in helping mitigate the spread of the virus, and dismissing a student reporter does not bode well for University efforts towards COVID-19. This comes as the tests conducted by the University have decreased to under 3,000 a week. However, the University still has time to turn things around. The “general perception” at the moment is that the University does not care about its students and cares only about their bottom-line. If they continue to act this way, this “general perception” may very well be the reality.