Think back to August 2020. Think about a nice warm summer – not quite as warm as this week, but still pretty good. Going on short breaks, long breaks, just-for-the-hell-of-it breaks – it was nice but it didn’t last long.
Localised lockdowns were instigated in Kildare, Offaly and Laois, driven by rises in cases apparently centred around large meat processing plants (MPPs). Something had to be done to reduce risks to workers while ensuring that plants could stay open.
A multidisciplinary team, led by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), established a pilot study in one MPP to understand the risks of virus transmission. This was rapidly followed by a larger study, supported by DAFM and industry bodies, and funded by Science Foundation Ireland, encompassing experts in infection control, virology, occupational health, aerosol science, meat plant operations, food hygiene, epidemiology and public health to dig into every aspect of life inside and outside multiple MPPs.
The project was codenamed Upcom (“Understanding and preventing outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants – prepared for the future”). Not the catchiest of titles, but a name that became a driver for change and an improvement in our understanding of how Covid gets into and spreads in an indoor environment.
Covid waves are still washing over us on a regular basis. Tsunamis of infection hit and move on, only to be followed by another, just as we are catching our breath from the last one.
Thanks primarily to vaccination, severe disease and death is reduced so the impact on the general population is dramatically lowered, but Covid is still killing, still debilitating, still disrupting life and still leaving people with long-term issues.
Living with Covid at the moment feels like a real pain in the backside. If there were ways to reduce the height of the wave, reduce its impact on the population, even by a little bit, without affecting our lives, shouldn’t we try to do that?
The Upcom study provides hard evidence to fight back against Covid’s disruption to our lives.
Crowds increase risk of transmission. Keep your distance to reduce spread. Not only will this reduce chances of infection but in combination with a well-fitted mask, even if you are exposed, it will reduce the initial dose of virus and thereby help to reduce the risk of disease.
Clean air is key. In certain parts of the MPPs air was recycled to efficiently maintain cooler temperatures (required for food hygiene). Rates of Covid transmission were dramatically higher in these areas.
One or two particles of Covid are unlikely to infect you, but 1,000 particles have a good chance.
Each droplet of moisture in the air could contain hundreds of virus particles – do you really want to give those droplets a chance to reach your nose or mouth?
If you don’t clean the air, you allow virus to build up, if you allow virus to build up, you increase your risk of infection.
It is said that John Snow saved London from cholera in the 1800s by proving that people could get infected from dirty water. Would we drink dirty water nowadays?
Why then do we continue to breathe dirty air in many buildings? A concerted effort to improve air quality in all buildings would help to reduce Covid and other respiratory infections.
The meat and food industry are developing alternative ventilation systems that reduce this risk for workers. Why isn’t it a national policy to do the same in all indoor environments?
As cases rise in the community, cases will rise in the workplace. Evidence from Upcom combined with several other studies suggest that one of the best ways to protect workplaces and limit Covid-driven absenteeism is to reduce cases in the community. Use every tool possible to do this without disrupting people’s lives.
The Upcom study showed that rapid antigen testing helps to reduce cases and relying on symptoms alone
The meat processing industry, supported by DAFM, the HSE and Upcom implemented workplace-based regular rapid antigen testing as part of a risk reduction programme.
Workers were regularly tested, and antigen tests helped to rapidly identify cases and potential outbreaks.
Rapid antigen testing is cheap, easy and evidence supports its use. They won’t detect every case but their use should be encouraged.
More broadly, the findings from the Upcom study emphasise, above all, the value of involving the general public, businesses, and communities, as active participants, rather than passive subjects, in the public health response.
For example, this current wave of infection was predicted by scientists at least a month before it hit Ireland yet very little warning was issued. Informing the public, before a wave hits, is vital so the public can actively participate in protecting themselves from impact (if they choose to).
Much like the weather forecast allows us to choose to wear a coat or shorts tomorrow, forecasting a wave of infection should become more prominent so people can plan accordingly – increase mask use, reduce socialisation or whatever to limit risk of disruption to life.
Waves will continue to crash against our country, and we need to prepare and manage them better.
We shouldn’t just accept the impact and disruption they are clearly having.
Evidence supports the use of mitigations that will reduce case numbers without majorly affecting our lives. What are we waiting for?