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How much does a hotel’s ventilation system matter right now? We asked the experts.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

As the world continues to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, “ventilation” has become a buzzword in the travel industry.

Early in the year, on coronavirus-plagued cruise ships, ventilation systems became a point of fear for passengers and crew alike. The effectiveness of air filtration and ventilation on airplanes is still not totally clear: While some studies suggest the chances of contracting coronavirus on a flight are low, some risk remains.

For hotels, however, good ventilation has become a feature to promote to bring customers back. Major chains, including MGM Resorts International and the Four Seasons, have advertised that they are enhancing ventilation systems, and smaller companies have gotten in on the movement, too: A-Lodge Adventure Hotel in Boulder, Colo., says one of its selling points, besides perks like access to hiking trails, is that its rooms and suites have no shared ventilation between them.

But health experts’ opinions vary as to whether — and how much — travelers should be concerned about ventilation in their hotel rooms. Here’s what four of them told The Washington Post.

Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Adalja, who has been contacted by hotel chains to help them come up with coronavirus safety protocols, says most transmission is occurring as a result of close interpersonal contact. “The key question when going to hotels is not so much the ventilation, but who you’re interacting with there and where you’re interacting with people,” he said.

While a lot has been written about ventilation systems, Adalja does not think there is strong evidence that ventilation systems are driving coronavirus cases. “There are many people who are advocating rehauling HVAC systems, but there’s not strong data that that actually is going to have any kind of major impact,” he said, “although you might see some hotels advertising they did that in order to attract customers.”

Even so, Adalja believes being in an area that is well ventilated is better than being in one that isn’t.

“I think that the risk is more from other individuals rather than it is from the environment itself,” he said. “Your room is probably not that big of an issue, but it’s when you’re in the common areas — so if you’re in the lobby or if you’re in the restaurant — those types of areas where you want to be much more mindful.”

Adalja said his best advice for travelers is to use common-sense precautions: Wear face coverings, wash your hands, and avoid areas that are crowded. “I think that hotels have done a lot to try to develop protocols to make it as safe as possible,” he said. “Obviously, you can’t get the risk down to zero.”

Brian Castrucci, epidemiologist and national public health expert

Castrucci, the president and chief executive of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health philanthropy, said that there has not been evidence of room-to-room transmission. But he believes the potential is there.

“Anytime that you’re going to a shared space, there is some risk,” Castrucci said. “We just don’t know enough yet to quantify what that risk is from hotel ventilation.”

Castrucci, who said he does not feel comfortable staying in hotels himself, recommends home rentals, instead. But for travelers who do plan to stay in a hotel, he advises factoring in its age and, relatedly, the quality of its ventilation system. Even better, find a building that’s newer or LEED-certified, meaning they’re designed to be environmentally efficient as well as improve indoor air quality.

“With each new building, of course, our own regulations get better,” Castrucci said. “A hotel built last year is going to be held to a different standard than a hotel built 10 years ago.”

Castrucci recommends travelers call a hotel in advance to ask about guests’ access to fresh air, as well as what lobby and elevator protocols are in place.

“I’d be happier staying at a hotel where I could open the window,” he said. “If it’s really a concern, you also could bring a personal air filter with you if that could help mitigate the risk.”

Lin H. Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine

Chen — who is also the director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. — says that, overall, fresh air is better.

“If you’re in a hotel where the windows can be opened and aired out, that seems more reassuring,” she said. You can turn on the air conditioning or heat, Chen notes, but neither system might be pulling from fresh air.

That being said, she is not too concerned if travelers don’t ask about a hotel’s ventilation system before their stay. “I’m thinking it’s not big enough of a risk,” she said.

Chen is a fan, though, of deliberately holding a room vacant between guests.

“I think by having some spacing out and having the air circulating, that’s all pretty reassuring,” she said.

Purvi Parikh, allergy and immunology specialist

Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network and New York University School of Medicine, agreed with Castrucci on windows: Before booking a stay at a hotel, she recommends that travelers call to ask whether it is possible to open the room’s windows and whether the hotel has made any upgrades to their ventilation systems.

“Ventilation is extremely important in the perpetuation of coronavirus and the transmission of it,” said Parikh, a member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “You want to make sure that a hotel has pretty good ventilation, meaning there’s a good exchange with outdoor air and indoor air.”

Parikh, like Adalja, also recommends avoiding unnecessary time spent in a hotel’s lobby or other indoor common areas, particularly as U.S. coronavirus cases continue to rise.

“Most health officials are advising against traveling, in general, especially during the holidays, unless it’s essential,” Parikh said. “We know that all of the viruses — not only coronavirus, but the flu — transmit much more in the winter months, and the main reason is people are inside more.”

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