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Millions of voters go to the polls on Monday to vote in the first federal election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many told CBC News they were concerned about precautions Elections Canada is taking to ensure voter safety, including adequate ventilation inside polling stations to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus indoors. .
Some of these precautions – including millions of single-use pencils and the constant cleaning of voting booths – have been called “theater of hygiene” by some for the excessive emphasis placed on surfaces.
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But Elections Canada’s approach is also receiving praise from experts for the physical distancing, masks and ventilation efforts that target the main routes of transmission of the airborne virus.
Here’s what Canadians can expect on Election Day.
What to expect when you arrive
The first thing voters may notice is that the lines are longer than usual outside the polling stations. This is because Elections Canada limits the number of people indoors at the same time to ensure adequate physical distance.
While approximately 5.7 million people have voted at the advance polls and hundreds of thousands more have voted by mail, Elections Canada still expects a significant turnout on polling day, which could result in queues outside.
Inside, disinfection stations will be installed at entry and exit points, plexiglass barriers will separate voters from election officials and frequent contact surfaces, such as doorknobs, tables and handrails , will be cleaned regularly.
Elections Canada even bought 16 million golf pencils and 3.6 million large pencils at a cost of $ 437,470, so that each will be touched by one person when they mark their ballot. (The agency says leftover pencils will eventually be reused, although some voters has been bring them home).
Polling stations have been checked to ensure they have decent air circulation. Elections Canada says each location has undergone a health and safety scan to ensure it meets federal guidelines for indoor ventilation.
Doors and windows will be open “as far as possible”.
Places requiring additional circulation will have fans or air purifiers with High Efficiency Particulate Filters (HEPA) in place to filter the virus from the air – but Canadians won’t see these devices in every polling station said Elections Canada.
Finally, all election officials and voters who arrive without masks will receive three-ply blue and white disposable non-surgical masks, while vulnerable people will receive KN95 respirators.
“Emphasis” on surfaces: health expert
Linsey Marr, an airborne virus transmission expert at Virginia Tech, praised the measures in Elections Canada’s plan on masking and distancing, saying they target “the primary means of transmission of the virus.”
But she questioned what she called “overemphasizing” measures to prevent surface transmission, which she said shows scientific evidence to be scarce or nonexistent.
A spokesperson for the World Health Organization told CBC News that there is limited evidence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 resulting from transmission via passive vectors, which are objects such as handrails, table tops or writing utensils that can theoretically spread a virus to a new host when infected.
“I don’t think there’s any harm in everyone having their own pencils,” Marr told CBC News in an interview. “But it diverts attention and resources from other measures that might be more effective.”
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Marr said the money spent on single-use pencils could be better spent by giving everyone a better surgical mask instead. While this would certainly increase the projected $ 610 million election price, Marr said better-quality masks would be “much more effective in reducing the risk of transmission.”
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician with the Toronto University Health Network, said he was “puzzled” by the pencil policy when he voted early last weekend.
“It seems that there is an element of hygiene theaterbut as long as that doesn’t take anything away from the measures that actually create a safer indoor space, I don’t care, ”Bogoch said.
“People should wear masks, these areas should be ventilated and they should really work as hard as possible to limit the number of people inside at any given time – and if they do, they do it well.”
How effective will the measures be?
Whether the election will lead to a significant increase in COVID-19 cases remains to be seen, but experts generally agree that Elections Canada’s focus on masking, ventilation and physical distancing should alleviate any major outbreaks.
Whether a trip to the polls is more or less risky than a trip to the grocery store or restaurant depends largely on the design of the polling station, the number of people inside and the time voters pass inside.
“If we take a step back and look at how many cases of COVID-19 will be transmitted as a result of the vote in this election – it won’t be zero,” Bogoch said.
“But it probably won’t be that high if these polling stations really do their best to handle crowd control, make sure people are masked, and take care of the ventilation in these indoor spaces.”
Six provinces and territories held general elections during the pandemic period, each with their own sets of protocols. Election officials each told CBC there was no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 among voters at polling stations, although two election officers in Newfoundland and Labrador tested positive for the virus.
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Marr says that a measure that can do more harm than good on the basis of emerging research are plexiglass barriers, which in theory can prevent transmission at the individual level, but can impede overall airflow in crowded indoor environments.
“Plexiglass can be useful for brief face-to-face interactions between election officials and voters,” Marr said.
“Although if there are a lot of other people around, the benefit is reduced, as any reduction in exposure to the two interacting people can lead to increased exposure to other people nearby.”
WATCH | More advice is needed on high-quality masks for voters, according to an expert:
She likens it to “squeezing a sausage” and says that if there are several large plexiglass barriers in a polling station, they could produce “hot spots” where the virus can “accumulate in the air more than. ‘he wouldn’t do it otherwise’.
An Elections Canada spokesperson said the plexiglass barriers used are approximately 96cm high and 86cm wide, and all health and safety measures in place for the election were developed on the advice and in consultation with public health authorities.
Advice for voters at polling stations
There are several ways for voters to protect themselves when they go to the polls, beyond the measures put in place by Elections Canada.
Marr suggests wearing a high quality respirator such as an N95, KN95, KF94 surgical mask or ASTM level 3 surgical mask at the polling station.
“Something that provides excellent filtration and fit, so it blocks particles in the air, viruses, prevents you from breathing them and also [ensuring] there are no leaks around the edges of the mask, ”she said.
These masks can be purchased online or purchased at retail stores, such as Home Depot, Home Hardware, Wal-Mart, and Costco. (Just beware of counterfeits and poor quality respirators). Health Canada also has a list of approved medical masks this can help refine the search.
Marr says some cloth masks can be effective if they have a built-in filter, but gaiters, bandanas, and face shields – when not in use with a high-quality mask underneath – are much less effective.
Since indoor air circulation is so important, voters should ask Elections Canada employees to open windows or doors to bring clean air into the polling place if they note that they are closed on arrival.
Finally, Marr says showing up at the polling station during off-peak hours, when it’s less crowded, will help reduce the chances of being exposed to an infected person.
“Don’t dwell on this,” she said. “Because the more time you spend there, the more air you breathe and the more likely you are to inhale enough virus to cause an infection.”
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