Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris will face off for the first time through plexiglass barriers at the debate on Wednesday, but health experts say that they won’t be enough to stop aerosol transmission of COVID-19.
The Commission on Presidential Debates approved on Monday the use of a plexiglas barrier between the two candidates, sources told Politico. Harris’ campaign supported the move while Pence’s opposed it, according to the publication. During the Oct. 4 U.S. Senate debate between South Carolina’s Republican incumbent Lindsay Graham and his Democratic challenger Jamie Harrison, Harrison “had a large transparent partition installed next to his lectern,” The State reported.
Now, Pence is requesting that no plexiglass dividers be used on his side of the stage, The Washington Post reported.
“If she wants it, she’s more than welcome to surround herself with plexiglass if that makes her feel more comfortable,” Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short said, according to the publication. “It’s not needed.”
For the vice presidential debate, the commission also agreed to space the candidates 12 feet apart instead of the original 7 feet, according to Politico. The commission rejected Joe Biden campaign’s request to have Pence and Harris stand and will have them seated, according to the publication.
“The Commission on Presidential Debates has not yet announced the final design for the stage,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday afternoon.
“Those barriers really don’t do anything,” John Lednicky, an aerobiologist at the University of Florida, told Business Insider. When the candidates speak, they’ll expel aerosols or smaller particles that “can hang suspended in the air for minutes to hours,” according to the publication.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated a guidance on Monday, writing that the coronavirus found in small droplets and particles “may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.” The CDC removed a statement about airborne transmission two weeks ago, The New York Times reported.
“These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation,” the guidance said. “Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.”
That means that despite Harris and Pence being spaced more than 6 feet apart and having a barrier between them, it’ll still be possible to spread COVID-19 through tiny particles in the air when they speak.
In July, 239 aerosols experts wrote in a letter to the World Health Organization, urging the agency to acknowledge that COVID-19 can be spread indoors by air.
“There is significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several meters, or room scale), and we are advocating for the use of preventive measures to mitigate this route of airborne transmission,” they wrote.
Linsey Marr, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech and expert in aerosol science, told NPR that people should wear masks indoors, even if there’s a plexiglass divider. Marr said wearing masks outdoors with people not in your household is also a good idea.
“Airborne transmission happens by inhalation of virus that’s in the air,” Marr said. “And this is happening even more frequently when people are close to each other.”
The CDC recommends staying at least 6 feet away from others and making sure indoor spaces are properly ventilated.
Harris and Pence will debate for the first time at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Harris tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday and Pence tested negative for the third time on Sunday as he continues on the campaign trail and participates in White House events.
Trump tested positive for the virus on Thursday and was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Friday. Trump’s blood oxygen levels dropped twice in recent days, according to Trump’s medical team. Trump was released from the hospital and returned to the White House on Monday evening, with his medical team saying at a news conference that he “may not be entirely out of the woods yet” but his medical condition supported his discharge from Walter Reed.