Sep 09 2020

Want to Keep Campuses Safe from COVID-19? Protect the Eyes

Here’s a look at the latest recommendations for face shields and other protective barriers to better protect campus communities from COVID-19.

While reopening strategies that incorporate widespread testing, face masks and data analytics solutions that enforce social distancing can help limit outbreaks on campuses, higher education institutions could benefit from additional protective equipment such as face shields and partitions because there is strong evidence that the coronavirus can also enter through the eyes.

"There’s good evidence that cotton masks and medical masks are protecting other people. They can keep community transmission low,” says Eli Perencevich, an epidemiology professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine who co-authored a study on COVID-19 containment. Unfortunately, a mask does not offer much protection for the individual who wears it. “The major reason for this is because it doesn’t offer eye protection,” Perencevich says.

Perencevich warns it could potentially be dangerous if reopened campuses ignore eye protection. “There are two ways the virus could cause infection via the eye: First, there are virus receptors in the eye. Second, there’s a direct path from the eye to the respiratory tract,” he says. “This was shown in SARS, and it’s one of the reasons why the CDC recommends healthcare workers wear eye protection.”

MORE ON EDTECH: See what social distancing tech can help campuses reopen safely.

He points to a recent study on healthcare workers in India that found coronavirus infection rates dropped from 19 percent to zero after workers began wearing face shields in addition to three-layered surgical masks and gloves.

"It’s a pretty well-designed, small study. It suggests face shields are additive to masks,” Perencevich explains. “They protect the whole face. Most importantly, they protect the eyes. And they protect the mask from getting contaminated. So, you can wear your mask a little longer and avoid contaminating yourself when you remove your mask.”

According to Perencevich, the CDC should recommend eye protection for the general public too. “People are probably less infectious by the time they get admitted to the hospital,” he says. “You’re way more infectious right when you get sick — when you’re in the presymptomatic and early symptomatic stages.”

Since most colleges and universities must offer at least some classes — such as lab-centric courses — in person this academic year, having the right protective equipment is important for managing campus health and safety. Here’s a look at what some medical experts are recommending when selecting comprehensive PPE equipment that also protects the eyes.

Tips for Selecting a Good Face Shield

Perencevich recommends that high-risk populations on campus — such as instructors over the age of 40 and those with chronic conditions — wear plastic face shields in addition to masks.

Although there is no substantial data yet on which types of face shields are more effective, Perencevich says it is better to choose one that covers the entire face.

“Ideally, you’d want something that covers the brow, under the chin, and the sides of your face,” he says.

He points to the Dome Shield developed at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, which covers more areas of the face than some other face shields on the market.

John Hick, an affiliated professor of emergency medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School who co-authored a study on PPE, agrees the shield should cover the entire face. “And make sure the material doesn’t fog and withstands cleaning well,” Hick says. “Some plastics become fogged after a few cleanings.”

Hick also recommends choosing a face shield that fits well and feels comfortable on the forehead. Make sure the strap is not losing tension over time and that it remains securely attached to the shield, he says.

LEARN MORE: Read about the emerging technologies that track COVID-19 in higher ed.

Other Ways to Increase Safety: More Barriers, More Protection

Face shields — in addition to masks and other safety measures — can help reduce COVID-19 infection rates, but they are not a panacea. Until widespread diagnostic testing and contact tracing is available in the U.S., it is better to take more safety measures than fewer.

It is worth noting that South Korea, a country that managed to flatten the curve without provoking an economic disaster, installed protective barriers in their reopened schools.

American higher education institutions could potentially benefit from incorporating South Korean school reopening practices — such as installing large protective screenspartitions or separation panels at desks, in cafeterias and in offices.

“Every bit helps,” Perencevich says.

Vladimir Vladimirov/ Getty Images