What’s the likelihood of catching COVID-19 in an elevator?
Here’s some good news: In an early release 2020 study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases focused on a COVID-19 outbreak in an office building in South Korea, the cases were mostly clustered among people who worked together on the 11th floor on one side of the building.
This is despite the fact that these employees came into contact with other people on different floors of the 19-storey building (who shared the same elevators). Now, the researchers believe that since the spread of COVID-19 was mainly concentrated on the 11th floor, the risk for transmission is strongly contingent on the amount of time people interact or have contact with one another in a crowded, enclosed space, like a call centre. In other words, a 30-to-60 second elevator ride with an infected person may pose less of a risk than spending eight-plus hours hanging around an infected person in the same office.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the main way coronavirus spreads is through respiratory droplets from others close to us when they cough, sneeze, or talk; secondarily is touching contaminated surfaces (like elevator buttons) and then touching your face. Both are risks on elevators, although there aren’t specific studies yet on a person’s chance of contracting coronavirus in an elevator.
An April 2020 study published in Nature has suggested that aerosol droplets—which are smaller than respiratory droplets—may hang in the air in small, poorly ventilated spaces, but it’s still unclear what that means for the actual transmission of the virus. In the study conducted in two hospitals in Wuhan, China, levels of the virus were very low or undetectable in public areas, isolation rooms, and ventilated areas but were detectable in bathrooms used by patients. However, the potential for aerosol transmission depends on several factors, including the amount of the virus a person is exposed to. There isn’t enough research to determine if the amount of virus seen in the aerosol droplets was sufficient to cause an infection.
Try to social distance
The days of the crowded, uncomfortable elevator may be over. Buildings should “limit the number of people to be 1.5 metres apart in an elevator,” says Dr Patricia Whitley-Williams, a paediatric allergy, immunology, and infectious diseases expert. So it won’t be completely up to individual riders to decide what’s safe: It’s likely that your building will be instituting rules on how many people can fit in your building’s elevator, and even may place decals on the floor to indicate where people should stand and what direction to face. Strange as it seems given the usual tendency for people to face forwards in elevators, facing the walls may mean fewer droplets landing near your face.
Elevator makers and industry organizations are offering guidance for buildings on how to accomplish keeping people apart in elevators; depending on the size of the elevator, it might mean one person in each corner. In addition, reduced building capacity and recommended staggered arrivals, departures, and break times might help with long waits for the elevator. If you’re the only person on the elevator, that’s ideal, but in a large building that likely won’t be possible. If you aren’t sure how many people can safely fit in the elevator, ask your boss or building supervisor for better guidance.
Get off if you don’t feel safe
Still, “trying to keep 1.5 metres apart is challenging on an elevator,” says Suzanne Willard, a clinical professor in global health. “It’s difficult to do.” You can follow all the rules your building has set out, but what if others don’t? If you feel uncomfortable, get off the elevator,” Willard says. For example, if someone else tries to crowd in when there isn’t enough space left, you can remove yourself to avoid confronting them directly. Or, if you arrive at an elevator and find it’s already full, don’t push in: Just wait for the next one.
“Avoid crowded elevators,” Dr Whitley-Williams says. Leave plenty of time to get to work so you won’t feel rushed to catch the elevator. And don’t worry too much about social niceties, because you probably won’t be expected to hold the elevator—at least in the near future.