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Third Round of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Produces More Scientific Data for Return to Activities

By NFHS on December 16, 2020 nfhs news Print

In its ongoing task of identifying ways to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in performing arts activities, a third set of preliminary results has been released in the unprecedented aerosol study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations.

Among the key findings in the most recent results – which focused on the distribution of respiratory aerosol generated while playing wind instruments, singing, acting, speaking and dancing – was that if music participants wear surgical-style masks with a slit for the mouthpiece, and use an appropriate bell cover, that aerosol emission is reduced between 60 and 90 percent.

The third release of information was preceded by initial results on July 13 that centered on aerosol pathways from a soprano singer and subjects playing four different musical instruments, and the second results on August 18 that investigated aerosol from additional singers and instruments, as well as theatre performers. 

Led by research teams at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland, the third set of results also determined that singers produce aerosol at similar rates as woodwinds and brass. The amount of aerosol dispersed by singers varies depending on consonants, vowels, intensity and pitch. In addition, singers wearing a well-fitted, three-layer, surgical-style mask have a reduced release of aerosol.

The researchers also addressed face shields and plexiglass partitions in the latest data. Among the findings were that face shields are only effective at close range to stop large droplets and do not prevent aerosol from being inhaled or released unless a mask is also worn. In addition, plexiglass partitions or barriers between musicians are not recommended due to HVAC system design limitations in rooms. The experts indicated a concern for aerosol build-up when plexiglass barriers are used.

“Many high school music programs have been able to continue their programs from earlier information released through this study,” said Dr. James Weaver, NFHS director of performing arts and sports and co-chair of the aerosol study. “We anticipate that this latest information will enable even more schools to feel confident in continuing these programs because the scientific data has become more refined through each state of this process. If all the mitigation steps are followed, we believe students can continue to be engaged in performing arts activities this year.”

In addition to these new findings, the third set of results reinforced several crucial elements from the earlier releases. First and foremost, masks must be worn at all times, and multi-layered bell covers must be used by all wind instruments. Regarding masks, the best-case scenario would be no gaps in the mask, nose covered and tight enough around the edges that an outline appears when it is removed.

The bell covers for woodwinds and brass should be made with a multi-layer cover with the center layer being made of MERV-13 filter material, or a three-layer, surgical-style mask using a standard such as GB/T32310.

As was noted in the previous release, the optimum area for rehearsals is outdoors, with the use of masks and proper distancing between participants. As events move indoors this winter, the researchers recommended an indoor setting with an elevated outdoor air exchange rate from HVAC as the best alternative.

Another highlight of the third round of results were the more fully developed five principal takeaways related to masks, distance, time, air flow and hygiene. Following is a breakdown of these five key areas:

Masks – Masks should be worn by students, and masks/bell covers should be on instruments and materials.

Distance – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) distancing guidelines of 6 feet by 6 feet should be followed, with additional space (9 feet by 6 feet) for trombone players. The distancing guidelines apply for outdoors as well as indoors.

Time – Rehearsals should be limited to 30 minutes. Indoors, the room should be cleared, and leaders should wait until at least one HVAC air change has occurred before the next rehearsal.   

Air Flow – Outdoor activity remains the best place for air flow. Indoors, HEPA filters are strongly recommended to increase the amount of clean air and the number of air changes per hour (ACH).

Hygiene – The strong emphasis continues on hygiene, including frequent handwashing, and cleaning of spit valves and storage areas.

“We have been monitoring potential spread of Coronavirus in college bands this fall, both concert groups and marching bands, and I am happy to report that even though there have been numerous examples of students in rehearsal (unknowingly at the time) with the virus, contact tracing has shown there have been zero transmissions during music activity,” said study co-chair Dr. Mark Spede, CBDNA President and Clemson University director of bands. “This is certainly the result we were expecting and hoping for, and it provides solid anecdotal evidence that the mitigations recommended in our scientific study are working as intended.”

The coalition, which includes lead researchers Dr. Shelly Miller, University of Colorado, and Dr. Jelena Srebric, University of Maryland, is in the fifth month of a six-month study, and a final report is expected in January.

To view past preliminary results and additional resources related to the aerosol study, use the following link: https://www.nfhs.org/articles/unprecedented-international-coalition-led-by-performing-arts-organizations-to-commission-covid-19-study/

To view the conversation related to the third data release, use the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fG1bcAWLazg&t=6s