Experts: Plexiglass barriers not enough to prevent COVID-19 spread

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 9:18 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Plexiglass barriers at grocery stores, nail salons, and even classrooms have become the norm, but experts say they should not be relied on without other safety measures in place.

“When we speak, we emit particles,” UVA Professor of Engineering Systems and Environment Andrés Clarens said. “Some of them are larger, and some of them are smaller, and the barriers are really intended to stop those larger particles from getting from me to you.”

Plastic barriers may work for short periods of time, such as in line at the grocery store, but not for longer time periods.

“If we are in a room where we have a confined space, the concentration of those particles can increase to the level where you can get enough of them transmitted to you that you would be infected with covid,” Clarens said.

“Part of the problem with the plastic shields is that they sort of make dead zones where the air can’t get across, and so that’s why they might not be as effective as we would hope, at least for something like COVID-19,” Doctor Bill Petri with UVA Health said.

The particles float through the air like water.

“A way to visualize this would it be if you’ve ever watched Shark Week. Particularly at night, shots underwater and you see things floating in the water, it’s the same idea with air,” Clarens said. “We just don’t see it as clearly because air is much thinner than water is and so there’s not as much visibility of these particles, but there’s particles and we’re breathing them in all the time”

Dr. Petri says classrooms are places where these barriers are not enough.

“The plastic shields are less important than some of the other common-sense measures that all of us are doing, and so having the students and the teachers mask is really important to prevent transmission,” Petri said.

Clarens says air flow is the best way to keep the virus away.

“The single most important thing, much more important than having these barriers in place, is just keeping fresh air coming in,” he said.

Clarens says he measured the air quality inside of a University of Virginia classroom and found that with the increased air flow UVA is doing, the air quality inside was about the same as outdoors.

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