COVID-19 cases are spiking across Southern and Western states just as rising summer temperatures are drawing people indoors to seek relief in the air conditioning. But can air conditioning facilitate the spread of the coronavirus?
The question comes as states are allowing indoor businesses to reopen, as well as allow increasingly large gatherings of people. But concerns about air conditioning are making their way into reopening policies in some states.
“There’s some reports that malls, bars, certain social clubs with air conditioning, that air conditioning may not be cleansing the air of the virus, just recirculating the air with the virus.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a briefing Wednesday. Malls and gyms will not be a part of New York’s phase four reopening because of this concern.
But experts say there’s little evidence to link air conditioning to the spread of the coronavirus. Rather, the risk more likely comes from the amount of time spent indoors in close proximity to others.
“The opening up of facilities from my point of view, and I think this is shared by colleagues, that doesn't depend on the air conditioning, it's the gathering of the people for long periods of time,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“You can think of laboratory experiments and theoretical possibilities of how air conditioning might spread this virus, but so far, there really isn't any noteworthy evidence that this is happening,” he said.
A study published in April raised concerns that air conditioning could spread the coronavirus. The research, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, detailed an instance in which 10 restaurantgoers in China were sickened after eating at neighboring tables. The authors concluded that the virus was spread by the air conditioning system blowing tiny virus-laden droplets through the air.
Schaffner said this study may be an interesting outlier, but noted that there have been no further stories like this documented with the millions of infections worldwide.