Limiting workers' inhalation of COVID-19 virus must be top Biden priority, experts tell CDC

A group of physicians and scientists is calling on the CDC to do more to address inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and protect workers in high-risk settings, including hospitals. 

In a letter dated Feb. 15 and shared with Becker's Feb. 17, 13 experts in aerosol science, occupational health and infectious disease say federal officials should strengthen measures to limit inhalation exposure to SARS-COV-2 as a cornerstone of President Joe Biden's plan for COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness. 

The letter was sent to Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House's COVID-19 response; CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the White House's health adviser.

"Our letter focuses on the importance of acknowledging the fact that aerosol transmission is playing a major role in spreading SARS-CoV-2," Kimberly Prather, PhD, one of the signatories, and infectious disease specialist and professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said in a news release. "We now know from evidence that infectious aerosols, produced simply by breathing and speaking, float in air for hours and can accumulate indoors in poorly ventilated spaces. 

"Our letter encourages CDC and other federal agencies to provide clear guidance on how to best protect against inhalation exposure to aerosols so we can reopen, and safely keep open, schools and businesses. This includes taking steps to test and improve ventilation and filtration to clean the air that people share in indoor spaces."

The experts said action is needed more now, given the high number COVID-19 infections and deaths, the pace of the vaccine rollout and the possibility of more transmissible variants.

They urged the CDC to update and strengthen agency guidelines to fully address transmission through inhalation exposure to small inhalable particles from infectious sources at all ranges. Respiratory protection guidelines should include all healthcare workers, not just those with direct contact with COVID-19 patients, they said. They also want federal officials to recommend the use of high-quality masks, such as N95 respirators, to protect high-risk healthcare workers, according to the New York Times

In an email to the newspaper, CDC officials said N95 respirators are not recommended for the general public "for reasons supported by science, comfort, costs and practicality."

For healthcare workers, the agency recommends N95 respirators to protect workers during high-risk medical procedures. 

Read the full New York Times report here


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