UAB’s ELC-funded program offers a starting point for better indoor air quality in Alabama schools
Springtime in Alabama means pollen season. Whether it makes a mess on your car or is the thing that makes you miserable for a few months while the weather starts to warm up, most of us feel pollen’s irritating power in one way or another. In the fall and winter months, we get bombarded with flu and other respiratory viruses, causing children to miss school and fall behind on learning. We do not know yet if Sars-Cov-2 will fall into a seasonal pattern as well, but we’ve been told that it is an epidemic virus that will become endemic, and we must somehow learn to live with it.
Now that fall is among us, experts warn that we could have a triple threat of RSV, Flu, and Covid all at once; it certainly seems possible. An elementary school in Decatur shut down this week due to flu and RSV outbreaks, with over 100 students and 30% of teachers ill. With the news of new Covid variants getting a foothold in the U.S. and these respiratory viral outbreaks occurring simultaneously, it seems inevitable that we will see school closures repeat throughout the state as most covid prevention strategies, which would also help prevent other respiratory viruses, are no longer in place. But what if there was something else we could do to prevent illness and keep schools open? What if there was a machine that could suck most of the pollen, viruses, particulate matter, and even offensive odors out of our indoor air? That would be one way to learn to live with these threats to our lungs and sources of learning loss. Turns out, there is!
It’s Called HEPA Filtration
The UAB School of Public Health now has a new service managed by the Covid Testing and Prevention in Alabama’s K-12 Schools program, funded by the CDC’s ELC grants, that gives FIVE FREE HEPA portable air purifiers to every K-12 school in Alabama. These HEPA air purifiers also come with a two-year supply of replacement filters.
The air purifiers, made by Medify, are medical grade and use HEPA filtration, which removes 99.97% of tiny particulates, such as pollen, viruses, mold, bacteria, and odors, out of the air so we don’t breathe them in. Thanks to a program extension, this free HEPA filtration purifier program gives schools the chance to help students and teachers avoid illnesses, aggravated asthma attacks, and have better focus during the day, all things that the EPA has been telling us to do for years now, but schools haven’t had the budgets to address.
So how do we get these purifiers into schools? Alabama parents and caregivers, contact your school principals, superintendents, and school nurses to let them know about UAB’s program. Principals and Superintendents, all you need to do is complete a form online and your five free units will be shipped directly to your school(s). The process is simple to allow your students, teachers, and staff to breathe a little bit easier for the next three school years.
A Good Start Beats Inaction
While five air purifiers aren’t enough to cover the needs of every classroom, like Utah’s impressive, initiative-taking, and equitable HEPA filtration program is doing, it IS a start. And a start at better indoor air quality is what we need. These Medify units are portable and can be installed in the most vulnerable areas of the schools, such as nurses’ offices, cafeterias, and any other areas where ventilation may not be achieving the currently recommended 6-12 air changes per hour or 30 cfm/person.
If we want to see greater reduction in adverse health outcomes, chronic absenteeism, and close learning gaps, we need to prevent illnesses from happening in the first place. HEPA filtration can help with that. A study by Goethe University in Frankfurt found that by achieving approximately 6 air changes per hour with HEPA filters yielded an 82.5% reduction in inhaled dose of SARS-CoV-2. We can get there too, but first, go claim your school’s five free HEPA purifiers and get started!
Benefits of Claiming Your Free Purifiers Now
The HEPA purifiers for schools service ends in July 2023. If purifiers are still available after all schools have had a chance to claim their initial five units, schools who participate first will be offered the remaining units.
In addition, while not required, if school districts opt-in to other services provided by UAB’s Covid Testing and Prevention in Alabama’s K-12 Schools Program, supplemental funds are available, starting at $40,000 per district and $15,000 for each school. Earmarked for COVID-related needs, these funds can be used to purchase additional HEPA air purifiers. School districts do not need to opt-in to any other services to receive HEPA units and any Alabama K-12 school, public or private, may participate in the HEPA purifier program, even if the district they belong to does not participate. However, there are benefits if districts fully participate, in addition to the supplemental funding, it provides equitable air quality improvements for all students in the district. Getting the units in place now should be paramount, before the possible “twindemic” influenza/Sars-Cov-2 surge or triple threat scenarios we’ve been warned about happen at any other schools.
Healthier Schools Equal Healthier Students
On Tuesday, October 11, The White House held an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Summit. There, Dr. Joseph Allen, Director of Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Chair of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe Schools, and Safe Travel, said “The person who manages your building has a greater impact on your health than your doctor.”
Indoor air quality improvements are the missing piece to learning to live with Sars-Cov-2 and other airborne threats to our health. This requires making our buildings safer by use of engineering controls, such as with updated ventilation and filtration with portable HEPA air purifiers, shifting the burden of responsibility off individuals, to keep our buildings healthier and most importantly our building occupants healthier. In schools, which speakers at the White House IAQ Summit agreed are an important and central part of our society, building occupants are our children, our teachers, our cafeteria staff, our custodians, our administrators, everyone, and they must be provided clean indoor air in an equitable way.
Just as we expect our tap water to be clean, our indoor air should be clean as well. Alabama parents and caregivers, contact your principals and superintendents today. Share this article with them. Principals and superintendents, fill out the form and click on the blue button to contact UAB’s School of Public Health Covid Testing and Prevention in Alabama’s K-12 Schools today and claim your five free HEPA purifiers. If the units run daily year-round, which is best practice, by pollen season next year, we might find ourselves feeling healthier and maybe, even better than “normal”. Students could stop experiencing chronic absenteeism due to illnesses, learning losses would decrease, resulting in more focused learning, higher test scores, and ultimately, healthier students.