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White House releases ventilation guidelines meant to address indoor Covid spread

The White House on Thursday released new ventilation and air quality guidelines for schools, colleges and other building owners and operators in an effort to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading indoors.

The guidance comes as many restrictions, including mask mandates, were lifted in recent weeks across the country as cases and hospitalizations continue to decline nationwide. The so-called Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, part of the Biden administration’s new strategy for handling this phase of the Covid fight, addresses how improving indoor ventilation can help keep people safe — something many experts have been calling for throughout the pandemic.

The recommendations, published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, include creating an action plan to improve indoor air quality, optimizing fresh air ventilation, enhancing air filtration and engaging people in the community. In each of those four categories, the plan includes detailed steps for building operators to consider.

“Protecting our public health means improving our indoor air quality,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Some of the suggested measures are short-term improvements, such as using portable air cleaners in areas with poor air flow. Others require longer-term investments, including upgrading heating, venting and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems and installing extra ventilation.

The guide doesn’t address the cost of carrying out the upgrades, but a statement from the White House says funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan can help upgrade air quality in schools and public buildings.

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Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said in a tweet Thursday that the guidelines are an “important new effort” to improve indoor ventilation and air filtration. She added that improving air quality in buildings will also help prevent flu, asthma attacks and other viral respiratory infections.

She pointed out, however, that the plan does not provide technical assistance to help schools evaluate existing ventilation systems and apply for funds to make upgrades, and does not include help for individuals to make similar air quality improvements in their homes.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the Biden administration’s focus on improving air quality in buildings.

“Glad to see the White House taking ventilation so seriously,” she tweeted Thursday. “Layered mitigation factors, including meaningful upgrades in ventilation have helped us enter this new phase of Covid. We must continue to invest in upgrades to keep our communities safe.”