Tonight there will be plexiglass barriers during the Vice Presidential Debate phase to help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. However, once experts looked at the actual obstacles, they weren’t impressed.
After some back and forth over the past few days, Vice President Mike Pence’s team agreed to put plexiglass barriers on stage for his debate with Senator Kamala Harris on October 7th, CNN reports. The two are also placed 12 feet apart to keep them socially distant.
While the plexiglass seems well-intentioned, it probably wouldn’t do much to prevent the spread of COVID-19 based on how we know the virus is moving. Coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, which contain the virus that people with the infection expel when they speak, scream, cough, or sneeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Someone else could inhale these droplets, or the droplets could land in their nose, mouth, or eyes and potentially further infect them.
Sometimes these droplets are smaller and form an aerosol that can linger in the air or be carried further than the usual six feet, says the CDC. When this happens it is colloquially referred to as “air transfer”
Although plexiglass can help prevent larger droplets from spreading within six feet, the plexiglass on display during the vice presidential debate stage is absolutely inadequate to protect the candidates, experts say. Not only is it likely that plexiglass isn’t enough to prevent the coronavirus from spreading through the air, but the plexiglass setup shown is so minimal that it barely acts as a barrier.
“These plexiglass barriers will really only be effective if the Vice President or Kamala Harris spit on each other,” said Ellie Murray, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Boston University New York Times.
“Potentially infectious aerosols can bypass these plexiglass barriers and spread the virus,” wrote Ali Nouri, Ph.D., molecular biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists, on Twitter.
“The Plexiglass really brings this ridiculously inadequate theater of infection control together,” wrote Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., a virologist at Columbia University School of Public Health, on Twitter.
“Imagine sitting at tables so far apart in a restaurant,” wrote Linsey Marr, Ph.D., Virginia Tech engineering professor who studies airborne pollutant and virus transmission on Twitter. “Someone at the other table is smoking. Are these barriers going to do anything?”
Instead of using tiny sheets of plexiglass, experts say it would be much safer if this and future debates were to take place with the candidates wearing masks, outdoors or even remotely using video software. “Masks can do a lot more than plexiglass if they are already aloof,” Marr wrote on Twitter.
But we already know what the Trump / Pence campaign feels like on masks: President Trump mocked former Vice President Joe Biden during his debate last week for wearing a mask a lot. And Trump’s family didn’t wear masks in the audience – although that was a health recommendation from the venue. And even the president announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 just days later, which was insufficient to change his mind. Trump left the hospital after just three days of treatment for the coronavirus – and took off his mask shortly before entering the White House.