Singing, Safety, and Double Glazing

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This is possibly not the metaphor you were expecting, but bear with me, I have found it a useful one for thinking about our current choral predicament.

If you’ve seen windows being fitted, you’ll know that the frames are installed first, and then the double-glazed units are inserted, and wedged into place with a strip of rubber seal all round the edge. If you’ve ever had problems with your double glazing, you may have learned that the seal will keep most of the rain out, but is unlikely to (and indeed not intended to) keep it all out. Instead, the frames are designed to drain the water that gets in back outside. (If the installers drill the holes out on the wrong side, they drain into your house instead of outside; DAMHIK.)

Likewise, whilst the installers will squeeze mastic all round the join between frames and wall, this is also not intended to be the primary means to keep the water out. The structure should be designed so that rain doesn’t get in, and the mastic serves as draught-proofing and to repel any minor seepage.

If at any point your window installers are using mastic as the primary method to solve a serious ingress of water, they are incompetent chancers who are trying to finish and leave as quickly as possible rather than face up to the fundamental structural problems of the products they have installed. Sack them and resign yourself to spending money with someone who knows what they’re doing. Mastic will inevitably fail sooner or later, and thus should never be your first line of defence.

In the various conversations the choral world are having about practices that might make singing together safe again, the focus is invariably on what happens inside the rehearsal room: spacing, masks, ventilation, limiting group size and rehearsal time, more esoteric and expensive solutions involving UV light. These, to my mind, are essentially mastic. Their usefulness is in attempting to reduce the spread of coronavirus should it be brought into the rehearsal room.

But, like mastic, they can’t be relied on to do the whole job for you. The risks we should really be focusing on when assessing choral safety are those of the wider public health context: how likely is it that someone will bring coronavirus into rehearsal?

In places like Norway where, as of the day of writing, there are a total of 402 active confirmed cases, the risk of Trondheim Cathedral choir bringing the virus into the room looks very different from that for a choir in the UK where there are nearly 250,000 active cases. Even adjusted for population level, the risk is two orders of magnitude higher in the UK than in Norway.

I would argue that active case numbers is the single most important risk to consider here, and the one virtually nobody is talking about in the choral world. Probably of course because it is one we can’t do anything much about – it is a factor determined by the overall public health response. Likewise the existence of an effective test-trace-isolate regime, which is the key differential between those countries that have squished their outbreaks and those that haven’t.

If there were no new cases in your area for, say, 3 weeks, plus you knew that anyone who had been in touch with an infected person would be contacted and removed from circulation until they were known not to be a danger to others, you could be pretty confident to restart rehearsals. You’d probably still want your mastic, just to be sure. But the more significant line of defense would be reverting temporarily to remote rehearsing the moment there was a confirmed case in your area.

For countries that have failed to contain the outbreak, like the UK and the US, the depressing advice to wait for a vaccine may yet be the most realistic. But still, we have to plan also for what we do if they can’t make one. Then it’s back to public health practices. But for those in countries where the public health response has already been effective, waiting for a vaccine could be unnecessarily cautious.

Another factor often discussed is size of groups, and it’s worth making the distinction here between risk to individuals and risk to populations. There are ways in which a smaller group is safer for individuals than a large one - the odds of one person being infectious are lower, and wider distancing is easier – but the chances of spreading infection if someone turns up with the virus is still high. (I have personal experience of this, having been one of five of the 13 people who warmed up in my kitchen for 30 minutes before an outdoor gig in December 2010 to have spent Christmas in bed with swine flu.) From an individual perspective, then, smaller groups function at best as mastic.

From an epidemiological perspective, small groups are safer because they limit the number of people who can catch the virus all at once and take it out into the world. Imagine if the superspreader Case 31 in South Korea had gone to prayer groups of a dozen people at a time instead of church services of 1000 or more - how much easier and quicker it would have been to track all her contacts before they spread the virus much further.

Intermittency is another useful thing to think about. The CDC study of the Skagit County choir so tragically afflicted by the virus showed a compounding effect over two weeks. The timing of this disease is such that you can pick it up at rehearsal one week, and then spread it further the next before you yourself are symptomatic.

These measures are the epidemiological equivalent of the rubber seal/drainage combination: they can’t stop the virus getting in to your choir, but they can manage it to limit the damage it can do once it has. ‘Damage’ here is defined as new case numbers overall. For the individuals who catch it, the outcomes in terms of damage to their bodies will be no different from if they had caught it under any other circumstances.

So, to summarise, the imperfect but nonetheless useful metaphor of double glazing clarifies three ways in which to think about choral safety:

  1. The structural level: building your house so that the windows are designed effectively to keep the rain out. This is what remote rehearsing is about: removing the opportunity to spread the virus until case numbers are right down, and presymptomatic people are identified and isolated, so that people can’t inadvertently bring sickness to rehearsal.
  2. The design level: recognising that where you can’t physically keep water out, you need to manage it through effective drainage. This limits the extent to which your choir, once infected, represents a danger each other and to the wider community its members come from.
  3. The sealant level: mastic is jolly useful in its way, but you don’t use it to make window frames. Masks, distancing, screens, and ventilation may all mitigate spread of infection once it’s in the room. Any factor that reduces viral load is useful, but don’t rely on this unless you’ve got the other two levels sorted.

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