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Plexiglass barriers at Pence-Harris debate ‘are a joke,’ won’t stop coronavirus, medical experts say

The Commission on Presidential Debates is taking extra precautions at Wednesday night’s Vice Presidential debate given the coronavirus outbreak in the White House, but pictures of two curved plexiglass barriers they plan to use has some epidemiologists and airborne pathogen specialists scratching their heads.

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will be seated more than 12 feet apart and separated by two plexiglass barriers. But those barriers are “entirely symbolic,” according to Dr. Bill Schaffner, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University.

The commission became worried after President Donald Trump and several White House staff contracted Covid-19 shortly after last Tuesday’s presidential debate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Pence was not in “close contact” with Trump, who announced that he was infected with the virus early Friday morning.

Nonetheless, a person familiar with the debate planning told NBC News that Harris’ campaign asked for the plexiglass to be used at the event at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The plexiglass is “minimal protection,” Schaffner said in a phone interview, adding that the barriers are mostly “cosmetic.” 

However, he added that barriers are one part of a “layered approach” that includes testing and distancing of everyone on stage. Everyone in the debate hall is required to wear a mask and there will be no handshake or physical greeting between Pence and Harris, according to the commission. Altogether, he said, the steps have likely reduced the risk of spread occurring.

The plexiglass barriers are just one “part of the CPD’s overall approach to health and safety,” according to a fact sheet distributed by the commission.

The debate is due to take place indoors and, of course, plenty of talking is expected. That’s important because the CDC released new guidance on Monday that said the virus can spread through particles in the air between people who are further than six feet apart in certain environments. The CDC said the risk of that occurring increases indoors and when people are doing certain activities, including speaking.

Jeff Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and a specialist in indoor air quality, ventilation and filtration, said the risk of virus-carrying particles going airborne in an environment like a debate when people are talking loudly is “huge.”

“On the plus side, it’s a pretty big space, so there’s a big dilution effect,” he said over the phone, adding that Harris, Pence and the moderator, Susan Page, will be spaced out appropriately. The high ceiling and large room will also help to reduce risk, he said.

“But they’re not addressing things like ventilation,” Siegel said, adding that he hopes the debate hall has appropriately up-to-date air filtration and ventilation systems. “If I was Vice President Pence’s staff or Harris’ staff, I would certainly want to get a portable HEPA filter in there.”

HEPA filters are high-performing air filters that capture very small particles in the air. The commission did not return CNBC’s request for comment on the building’s