Monday, October 11, 2021

How to stop viruses spreading at choir – ventilate, ventilate, ventilate

Many of us feel that we have become seriously over-informed about aerosols, droplets and other Covid issues.

But the silver lining is that we are now far more aware of how to help prevent winter colds and flu in our choirs (and Covid of course).

how to catch a cold at choir

Everyone is excited when autumn arrives: choir is back! After a long summer break, singers are keen to get back to singing together.

Here’s what happens next …

Singers from far and wide gather together in a warm room and breathe over each other for a few hours. They also hug each other and share stories from their summer holidays.

It’s a perfect recipe for spreading bugs.

Many vulnerable singers even skip the winter season as they’re worried about catching flu.

But now, having lived with a pandemic for 18 months, we are better equipped to help stop viruses spreading.

keep your rehearsal space well-ventilated

The key element is ventilation.

It’s important to keep air flowing through your rehearsal space. Not just by having a high window open a crack, but by having doors and windows open wide so there is a good flow of air.

The problem is that over winter we also want to keep warm. Which is why we’re indoors in the first place.

The worse thing to do (especially in these times of climate emergency and high domestic fuel costs) is to crank up the heating to compensate. It is wasteful and damaging.

adapting to new circumstances

I had a girlfriend who was always cold. We lived in a small flat in London and the heating was on high all winter. I found it unbearable.

Then she moved out and went to live in the countryside. The first time I went to visit her, I was amazed that she had all the doors and windows open and no heating on. Even I was a bit cold!

She had adapted to her new outdoorsy life and had become accustomed to not having the heating on so often. If she can do it, so can you!

I once went to a friend’s house for the first time one winter for a dinner party. I was amazed when I got there to find him wandering around in a summer t-shirt with the heating on really high. I was seriously over-dressed and got far too hot.

It’s something that many of use have become used to: letting the heating do all the work and not bothering to put warmer clothes on.

It’s time we went back to wearing suitable clothes in the cold. Put on a warm jumper, have a blanket over you when watching TV, wear your winter clothes around the house and not just outside.

We can also readily adapt to cooler surroundings. Try opening doors and windows in the morning to refresh the air in your house (it’s good for you). Turn the thermostat down a few degrees. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get used to the new normal.

What about the old and vulnerable, you ask?

Of course if somebody is particularly vulnerable or unwell, they need to be kept warm. But it can be enlightening to look at other rural cultures in cold countries where people have adapted over time. The older people generally cope well because they are used to not having regular heating throughout the house.

keep moving

If it’s cold, sitting still can make you feel colder. The secret is to get up and move. Whether it’s in your home office, watching TV, or in a choir rehearsal.

In a well-ventilated rehearsal space in the winter, it’s important to include more moving about. This could be simply swapping places with other singers or doing actions to songs. You might throw in a bit of a physical warm up in the middle of a session rather than only at the start.

how much ventilation is enough?

Of course it depends on the size of the room and the number of singers. What you’re trying to do is to reduce the amount of aerosols that are floating around.

One way to check if there is sufficient ventilation is to use a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) monitor.

There is increasing evidence that CO2 levels in buildings correlate strongly with the airborne spread of infection (see Carbon Dioxide monitoring to lower the coronavirus threat). See also CO2 monitoring recommended to manage COVID-19 spread in schools and offices.

Measuring CO2 won’t tell you how many viral particles are in the air, but it gives a good indication of the air quality – you can’t have a build up of virus aerosols without a corresponding build up of CO2.

On the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive website you can read more about Identifying poorly ventilated areas and using CO2 monitors.

There are many different CO2 monitors on the market. You’ll probably need to spend at least £100 to get an effective monitor. The best kind use Non-Dispersive Infra-Red (NDIR) gas sensors.

You will probably find that levels are at their highest when the whole choir is singing, and at their lowest when individual parts are being taught.

It’s also a good idea to check before you start rehearsing as other users of your space may well have built up aerosols during the session immediately before yours.

helping to stop the spread of viruses

All those mitigations that we’ve become used to during the Covid pandemic should become second-nature in the future. In this way we can help prevent colds and other bugs during the winter choir season.

Here’s what you can do, in order of importance:

  1. if you have symptoms, stay home – if you have the slightest sore throat or headache or coughs or sneezes, you shouldn’t be at choir! (see also Keep it to yourself! – why colds, singing and choirs don’t mix and The choir leader’s guide to catching a cold)
  2. ventilate your rehearsal space – make sure you have a good flow of air in your rehearsal space.
  3. take breaks – virus particles in the air will build up over time, so it’s a good idea to take more breaks and get all singers to leave the rehearsal space while the air in the room is refreshed.
  4. keep your distance – singing into somebody’s face, giving someone a hug, chatting to someone animatedly in the break are all great ways of spreading viruses.
  5. wear masks – this is second nature in many other cultures: when people have the slightest symptom of a cold, they mask up. It’s something maybe we should get more used to, to help prevent colds and flu spreading so readily. Remember to wear an effective mask (not all masks are made the same) and that it is mostly to protect your fellow singers.

Keep safe, stay well, and keep singing!


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Chris Rowbury




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