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Reducing the spread of COVID-19 in buildings requires a comprehensive approach

February 25, 2021

By Tim Reilly

Newly formed COVID Environmental Quality Services team brings together multifaceted specialists to help manage indoor risks

Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we should all be well-versed in these simple steps to reduce exposure risks. But we also know that we need to apply all these practices.

This principle applies when we consider how to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 in buildings. It’s not about just taking a single step—say, limiting occupancy or sanitizing surfaces. No, if we want to reduce the risks during the pandemic—and for years to come—we need a comprehensive approach. That’s why our team at Stantec provides specialized targeted infection management and control services through our COVID Environmental Quality Services (CEQS) team. 

Managing commercial, residential, hospitality, public, and military buildings is complex in the best of times. During the pandemic, it becomes even more so.

Managing commercial, healthcare, residential, hospitality, public, and military buildings is complex in the best of times but even more so during this pandemic. COVID-19 risk is multifaceted and complex—which makes the issue of indoor environmental quality control that much more challenging. The risk of transmission—both airborne and on surfaces—creates challenges for managing buildings, operating businesses, and delivering public services. For the CEQS team, we’ve brought together professionals in biology, health, safety and hygiene, environmental health, and building systems to help address these issues.

Information about the risks of COVID-19—and how to manage those risks—is ever-evolving. That makes it difficult to stay up-to-date and make an informed decision on how to mitigate risks. If you’re a building owner, manager, operator, or tenant, you may not have the comprehensive, technical grasp of the complexity of indoor environmental quality issues, nor the necessary steps to bring buildings up to current COVID-19 management standard practices. You may consult with your local heating and cooling (HVAC) company, but while HVAC technicians may be familiar with your building and its systems, they may not have the necessary training in environmental health. Likewise, you may read up on the latest advice for sanitizing surfaces and keeping your workers distanced—but do you know effective ways to develop, implement, and communicate those policies to your team? With CEQS, we’ve brought together the professionals necessary to understand, assess, and manage COVID-19 risks in a building or campus, whether it’s an office, a small business, or a university. 

For the CEQS team, we’ve brought together professionals in biology, health, safety and hygiene, environmental health, and building systems.

We recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. The goal of our CEQS team is to identify potential hazards (facility and occupants), evaluate the risk specific to that building, and design or assess whether appropriate precautions and controls are implemented, assisting the enactment of nationally and internationally recognized guidance and standard practice.

The emergence of vaccines will not end the need to manage these risks. While vaccines will be a game changer, at this time we only know that they will reduce the severity of the disease—not necessarily the transmission rate. So, for the foreseeable future, strategies to limit disease spread are critical in indoor environments. What’s more, recent scientific findings show that this coronavirus can rapidly mutate, making the SARS-CoV-2 virus a dynamic infectious agent, including the potential for some variants to have increased transmissibility. This means we also need management strategies that evolve with the virus.

With all of this in mind, our CEQS team provides innovative strategies to effectively manage indoor environmental quality to minimize risks. CEQS also considers the human factors associated with reducing COVID-19 transmission. We do that by considering scientific findings, professional guidance, and government policies to address factors such as when those who may have been infected should quarantine and when recovering personnel may re-enter public buildings. Further, CEQS team staff are located across the globe, conduct research in the field, and bring an international pool of professionals to address local infectious-agent management issues.

If we want to reduce spreading this disease during the COVID-19 pandemic—and for years to come—we need a comprehensive approach.

Why is a comprehensive approach so essential? Consider this. Earlier in the pandemic, a school system asked our team to assess one of their buildings. A Stantec CEQS professional realized that the school’s HVAC system wasn’t using the appropriate air filter. Meanwhile, one of our CEQS professionals also recognized that the incorrect filter would have little to no impact on controlling the spread of the virus through the building. It wasn’t a question of simply obtaining the right kind of filter. The entire HVAC system may have to be amended or replaced to improve air quality and mitigate the spread of the virus. Together, armed with the understanding of the building’s systems, coupled with an understanding of the virus, we developed a cost-effective solution specific to that school. We right-sized portable air purifiers designed to filter out the virus along with other strategies geared to specific spaces, such as computer labs and bathrooms. This approach was considered a cost-effective, risk-mitigation solution, so the school district put similar portable air filtration and purification units in all its buildings.

Stantec’s CEQS team can address COVID-19 and other indoor air quality issues in buildings large and small. For example, for a commercial building, we confirmed the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 management strategies with relatively minor tweaks to optimize the building’s operational systems and policies. In other cases, we can provide a comprehensive strategy for COVID-19 practices and practical, cost-effective implementation strategies for entire commercial, academic, military, and other campuses worldwide.

With the goal of reducing risk through building operations and management during the pandemic, the CEQS team can successfully guide new or existing buildings toward achieving the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations & Management created by the WELL Building Institute IWBI to help companies and users to prepare their spaces for reentry in a post-COVID-19 environment. The WELL Health-Safety Rating has been created for all building types. This is a streamlined and scalable third-party document review of operations and management policies and proven strategies in a single framework that results in a WELL Health-Safety Rated SEAL. It is designed to inspire confidence from customers, employees, and the community that not only have policies been established to address pathogen concerns but that these policies have been third-party verified to be mapped correctly with scientific validation.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to managing COVID-19—and other infectious agents—indoors.

The WELL Health-Safety Rating consists of more than 20 strategies that address the following areas:

  • Cleaning and sanitization procedures
  • Emergency preparedness programs
  • Health service resources
  • Air and water quality management
  • Stakeholder engagement and communication

These strategies will support the health and safety on all space types during emergencies and normal operating periods. However, the WELL Health-Safety Rating is not intended to replace health-based governmental guidance and requirements.

It’s this kind of multifaceted environmental management; building engineering; and health, safety, security, and environmental approach that will help us manage COVID-19 and other infectious agent risks to both buildings and the people in them.

To learn more about CEQS and our team of specialists, contact us: covid19@stantec.com

  • Tim Reilly

    A senior principal and program director for natural resource valuation and our COVID Environmental Quality Services (CEQS) programs, Tim leverages cutting edge techniques to solve real-world environmental problems effectively and cost-efficiently.

    Contact Tim
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