There are several things that are likely to come to your mind when you think about what could put you at risk for coronavirus: shopping in a crowded mall, eating a meal in a busy place, or attending a meeting with friends or relatives, just to name a few. Nonetheless, there is one thing that many people do on a regular basis that may put them in extreme danger without even knowing it: and it’s as simple as riding an elevator.
According to the CDC case study that will be published in the September 2020 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, one woman based in China’s Heilongjiang Province managed to infect up to 71 other people by using the elevator in her building. Via contact tracing, researchers have been able to determine that the woman who triggered a chain reaction in her neighborhood used a communal elevator, but not at the same time as any of the neighbors she transmitted the virus to — instead, researchers suspect coronavirus could have been transmitted by contact with high-touch surfaces in the elevator.
Once infected, her neighbors transmitted the virus to their friends, family members, and other individuals they had gotten in direct contact with, with a total of 71 people infected. Although the extent of coronavirus transmission associated with this particular person is alarming on its own, there is yet another significant factor in this case: the first coronavirus spreader was asymptomatic, contradicting information on asymptomatic spread provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June.
So, how are you supposed to act in an elevator to minimize the chance of catching coronavirus or spreading it to others? According to Joseph Allen, MPH, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wearing a mask during elevator trips is important to all passengers. Allen also suggests using a “checkerboard pattern” of physical arrangement in the elevator — meaning there is a person-sized space between each passenger — and making one individual on the elevator push the buttons for everyone on board, using their knuckles instead of their fingertips.
Compared to the coronavirus-mitigating strategy implemented by many stores, Allen also recommends that everyone in the elevator is facing the same direction. And for the pleasure of many introverts, Allen claims that talking while on the elevator is an absolute no-no. Although Allen acknowledges that riding an elevator in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic can be a nerve-wracking experience, that doesn’t mean that catching the virus is a genuine possibility.
“We have to note that our total exposure and risk is a function of three things: intensity, frequency, and duration,” says Allen, adding that with proper measures, all three can be kept at a reasonably low level as you go up or down.