Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris have already scuffled over having protective plexiglass barriers on stage during Wednesday night's debate, with Pence's team ultimately relenting to allow it. But the effectiveness of the plastic shields has drawn outright laughter from infectious disease experts, who claim the measure is "absurd" and useless, The New York Times reports.
COVID-19 is carried by aerosols, which can drift around a room and travel further than six feet when people are indoors. While Harris and Pence will be positioned 12 feet apart, the barriers around them will offer little protection if one of them is sick, since the aerosols can just float past or circulate around them.
Pence, notably, has tested negative for COVID-19 despite probable exposure, but he has also not yet made it out of the 14-day window in which the disease can begin to manifest.
"Those plexiglass barriers are really only going to be effective if the vice president or Kamala Harris are spitting at each other," Boston University epidemiologist Ellie Murray explained to the Times. "Those are really just splatter shields." Linsey Marr, a scientist at Virginia Tech whose expertise is in airborne transmission, actually laughed out loud when she saw the stage's set up, explaining that the barriers "are even smaller and less adequate than I imagined."
Joseph Allen, a ventilation expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Times that it's not just about the danger to Pence, Harris, and the moderator: "My biggest concern," he said, "is that millions of people will be getting the message that this is what an effective set of controls looks like." Read more about what actually would make the debate safer at The New York Times.