Those Anti-Covid Plastic Barriers Probably Don’t Help and May Make Things Worse

Those Anti-Covid Plastic Barriers Probably Don’t Help and May Make Things Worse

Covid precautions have turned many parts of our world into a giant salad bar, with plastic barriers separating sales clerks from shoppers, dividing customers at nail salons and shielding students from their classmates.

Intuition tells us a plastic shield would be protective against germs. But scientists who study aerosols, air flow and ventilation say that much of the time, the barriers don’t help and probably give people a false sense of security. And sometimes the barriers can make things worse.

Research suggests that in some instances, a barrier protecting a clerk behind a checkout counter may redirect the germs to another worker or customer. Rows of clear plastic shields, like those you might find in a nail salon or classroom, can also impede normal air flow and ventilation.

Under normal conditions in stores, classrooms and offices, exhaled breath particles disperse, carried by air currents and, depending on the ventilation system, are replaced by fresh air roughly every 15 to 30 minutes. But erecting plastic barriers can change air flow in a room, disrupt normal ventilation and create “dead zones,” where viral aerosol particles can build up and become highly concentrated.

“If you have a forest of barriers in a classroom, it’s going to interfere with proper ventilation of that room,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading experts on viral transmission. “Everybody’s aerosols are going to be trapped and stuck there and building up, and they will end up spreading beyond your own desk.”

There are some situations in which the clear shields might be protective, but it depends on a number of variables. The barriers can stop big droplets ejected during coughs and sneezes from splattering on others, which is why buffets and salad bars often are equipped with transparent sneeze guards above the food.

But Covid-19 spreads largely through unseen aerosol particles. While there isn’t much real-world research on the impact of transparent barriers and the risk of disease, scientists in the United States and Britain have begun to study the issue, and the findings are not reassuring.

A study published in June and led by researchers from Johns Hopkins, for example, showed that desk screens in classrooms were associated with an increased risk of coronavirus infection. In a Massachusetts school district, researchers found that plexiglass dividers with side walls in the main office were impeding air flow. A study looking at schools in Georgia found that desk barriers had little effect on the spread of the coronavirus compared with ventilation improvements and masking.

Before the pandemic, a study published in 2014 found that office cubicle dividers were among the factors that may have contributed to disease transmission during a tuberculosis outbreak in Australia.

British researchers have conducted modeling studies simulating what happens when a person on one side of a barrier — like a customer in a store — exhales particles while speaking or coughing under various ventilation conditions. The screen is more effective when the person coughs, because the larger particles have greater momentum and hit the barrier. But when a person speaks, the screen doesn’t trap the exhaled particles — which just float around it. While the store clerk may avoid an immediate and direct hit, the particles are still in the room, posing a risk to the clerk and others who may inhale the contaminated air.

“We have shown this effect of blocking larger particles, but also that the smaller aerosols travel over the screen and become mixed in the room air within about five minutes,” said Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds in England. “This means if people are interacting for more than a few minutes, they would likely be exposed to the virus regardless of the screen.”

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Dr. Noakes said erecting barriers may seem like a good idea but can have unintended consequences. She conducted a study published in 2013 that looked at the effect of partitions between beds in hospitals. The study showed that while some people were protected from germs, the partitions funneled the air in the room toward others.

So while a worker behind a transparent barrier might be spared some of the customer’s germs, a worker nearby or customers in line could still be exposed. Dr. Noakes said most screens she has seen are “poorly positioned and are unlikely to be of much benefit.”

“I think this may be a particular problem in places like classrooms where people are present for longer periods of time,” Dr. Noakes said. “Large numbers of individual screens impede the airflow and create pockets of higher and lower risk that are hard to identify.”

To understand why screens often have little effect on protecting people from aerosol particles, it helps to think about exhaled breath like a plume of cigarette smoke, Dr. Marr said.

“One way to think about plastic barriers is that they are good for blocking things like spitballs but ineffective for things like cigarette smoke,” Dr. Marr said. “The smoke simply drifts around them, so they will give the person on the other side a little more time before being exposed to the smoke. Meanwhile, people on the same side with the smoker will be exposed to more smoke, since the barriers trap it on that side until it has a chance to mix throughout the space.”

Most researchers say the screens most likely help in very specific situations. A bus driver, for instance, shielded from the public by a floor-to-ceiling barrier is probably protected from inhaling much of what passengers are exhaling. A bank cashier behind a wall of glass or a clerk checking in patients in a doctor’s office may be at least partly protected by a barrier.

Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

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