Manchester scientists help to reduce COVID-19 infection risks for the most vulnerable

The St Richard’s Hospice cares for people with a serious progressive illness who have complex needs that cannot be met by other care services. In line with modern engineering priorities the building was designed to include the latest thinking in energy reduction technologies, such as natural ventilation. 

Following their investigation Manchester researchers were able to pinpoint potential viral ‘hotspots’ to avoid, as well as identifying areas where there was also the least chance of infection in ‘The Green’, the internal courtyard that provides space for patients, staff and visitors at the heart of the hospice. 

The researchers found that, as expected, some architectural features like pillars or columns, as well as the arrangement of internal furniture, provided some disruption to the airflow at heights of 1-1.5m above the floor. This type of disruption can potentially influence virus transmission indoors. 

Professor Richard Lewis, a consultant physician and the vice-chairman of St Richard’s Hospice, was the medical lead on this study. He said: “We have been extremely grateful to Dr Keshmiri and his team for their enthusiasm, skills and dedication. 

“When it came to wanting to answer the question whether it was safe for our vulnerable patients to meet in the new communal space, the CPD team at Manchester was the obvious group to ask. 

“In particular we were aware, because this is an area where both staff, patients and their families eat and drink – and therefore remove their masks to do so – that it was important to be able to study the dynamics of airflow in order to identify the ‘safest’ area for our patients, and find ways of mitigating any risks. 

“As a result of the studies at Manchester we felt able to open the space to our extremely vulnerable patients. This is one step nearer to ‘normality’ for folk who have been effectively locked down for the past two years, and a step which we now make with confidence.” 

A current PhD project based at the University will carry on to develop a series of new metrics that link clinical data of virus transmission by COVID-19 patients, to better assess infection risks. This will provide a probability of infection map throughout the building’s whole flow domain. 

“Furthermore, by quantifying viral loads in the air, sensors will also be used to mitigate infection risk through controlling the required openings of the supply [ventilation] grilles to do so,” added Dr Keshmiri. 

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