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Sept. 19, 2020
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The college announced some updates yesterday, regarding the installation of Ultra-Violet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI) and the assessment of our HVAC systems in certain spaces. Below, is an FAQ regarding the precautions the College is taking with this effort.
 
Why is the college doing an air assessment?
 
A team of college personnel have been working all summer to implement safety protocols and other plans for returning to in-person instruction in the fall. We have followed the COVID guidance from the CDC, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Chicago Department of Public Health, having several consultations with the latter. In addition, the college engaged health care experts from Rush University Medical Center—including Dr. John Segreti, Rush’s head of epidemiology and infection control, and consulted with Dr. Emily Landon, chief epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who has informed both the State of Illinois and City of Chicago Departments of Public Health COVID-19 response, as well as numerous other institutions across the country, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other organizations.
 
All of the experts were briefed on the College’s reopening plans, and the Rush group also did an in-person walk-through and personally assessed a variety of spaces.  
 
These experts, who also met with faculty and staff leadership last week, have been clear that the most important things we should be doing—indeed, what they themselves are doing in their respective hospital and work spaces—is reducing density, physical distancing, mask-wearing, promoting good hygiene and sanitizing our spaces
 
We also replaced our air filters with the highest-rated filters our systems could accommodate, as recommended by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. From the onset of the pandemic, Columbia’s Facilities team has proactively assessed our infrastructure across campus. A detailed chart of those efforts can be reviewed here
 
Even though neither the state nor city public health guidance recommend air assessments or UVGI, we asked our experts about ventilation. Their consistent answer was that, while important, ventilation was not a proven barrier like masks, distancing, cleaning and reduced capacity, and that the college was going beyond what they would recommend in installing UVGI.
 
That is because the epidemiologists at Rush and University of Chicago have stressed COVID-19 is overwhelmingly primarily spread at close distance, in real-time, through heavier droplets that come out of the mouths of people who are not wearing masks, and the droplets quickly fall to the ground within 3 to 6 feet of the sick person. The part-time faculty union raised the issue of aerosolized spread of COVID-19 and those concerns were shared with our experts who have advised us that the primary concern for transmission of the virus is via large respiratory droplets.
 
The Rush and University of Chicago experts have repeatedly emphasized that, at Columbia, air considerations are an added precaution to our social distancing, mask, hygiene and sanitizing measures, and only recommended for those spaces where certain droplet-producing activities take place, like singing and playing wind instruments, dancing, and certain aspects of theater and CTVA.
 
What is it the air assessment is looking at?
 
The college retained mechanical experts at Ram Mechanical Inc. to verify there is sufficient fresh outside air being brought into our systems, which they have done. They also are looking at airflows and air replacement rates in spaces like music, dance, theater and CTVA. That assessment is ongoing. Rooms in those spaces won't be cleared for use for certain activities (high-exertion, high-projection activities like singing and dancing or performing stage combat) until a room has been assessed and meets standards.
 
Why isn’t the ventilation in all spaces being assessed by the college?
 
Our medical experts from Rush and University of Chicago’s medical centers have been explicit that classroom activities like sitting and speaking is not the cause for potential concern, especially because we have drastically reduced room capacities, put in place six-foot distancing protocols, and required masks. The concern associated with other activities is remote, especially because of the precautions already in place. But in spaces where certain activities take place, like singing and playing wind instruments, dancing, and certain aspects of theater and CTVA, we are taking additional measures out of an abundance of caution.
 
Our experts focus on how COVID-19 is spread, and on the ways we have reduced room capacities, and implemented cleanings, social distancing and masks, which they say are the key to prevention. Based on their infectious disease experience generally and with COVID-19 specifically, they have concluded that the scientific evidence about aerosolization does not require additional measures.
 
The Campus Reopening Task Force, which includes leaders from the faculty senate, staff union and part-time faculty union were briefed on this by the experts themselves last week. In addition to hearing from our medical experts, they heard the view of a ventilation expert presented by the part-time faculty union. Our path forward remains grounded in the opinion of our experts that the key steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are reducing density, physical distancing, mask-wearing, promoting good hygiene, and sanitizing our spaces, supplemented by special attention to spaces where high-exertion, high-projection creative activities take place.

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