Dr. Jay Walshon is a longtime Westporter. He spent 35 years as a chairman and director of emergency medicine; is a past director of EMS for South Central Connecticut, and the EMS advisory board; a 3-term president of the Connecticut College of Emergency Physicians, and recipient of the 2016 Phil Stent Achievement Award in Emergency Medicine.
On May 7, he spoke at a Parks & Recreation Commission meeting of his concerns about using portable toilets at recreational facilities. He shared those concerns in a letter to town officials. Dr. Walshon says:
It was recently announced that the new bathroom facilities at South Beach will remain closed owing to virus related concerns. This seems prudent, as those permanent restrooms are significantly more difficult to keep safe from spreading contagion. In addition, I support the cautious reopening public spaces for resident enjoyment.
However, as a medical professional I must respectfully point out that the choice to rely upon portable toilets at the beach potentially presents serious unnecessary and unjustifiable risks to public safety.
The premise that portable toilets are safe is not one which survives scrutiny when a highly contagious organism like COVID-19 is involved.
Current CT statistics indicate that 99% of Westport residents remain vulnerable to COVID-19.
We know there is significant community spread by pre-symptomatic viral shed for 2-3 days – including in diarrhea – and those devoid of classic signs or symptoms of COVID-19.
Given that between 25 and 50% of COVID-19 infectious people might not be aware they are spreading the virus, 2,000 beachgoers from Fairfield County will likely include people who pose unsuspecting risk. Odds are that some who are contagious will utilize these enclosed spaces. We will not know who or how many.
Viral particles can be found in the air for up to 3 hours, and droplets survive on hard surfaces for 3 to 4 days, rendering poorly ventilated confined public spaces such as portable toilets dangerous to unsuspecting users.
Despite seasonality, UV light and humidity effects, COVID-19 transmission will not be aborted and may not even significantly diminish. Current mitigation is grounded in assuming everyone may be contagious.
Using a toilet facility after someone who unwittingly aerosolized viral particles by coughing, sneezing, spitting, diarrhea, flushing, etc. can result in infection via inhaling micro-droplets or touching contaminated surfaces. While flushing does not occur, their poorly ventilated confined spaces can increase air and surface contamination. Outdoor spaces may provide elements mitigating viral spread, but port-a-potties provide environments that are the antithesis.
While I understand the these potties will be subject to “a stringent cleaning and sanitization protocol” by maintenance staff, to be reliably effective, disinfection needs to be performed between users by trained personnel wearing proper protective garments – a challenging and arduous task for our Parks staff in summer heat, and exposing them to undue risk.
These toilets will create queues of people who must maintain social distancing and wear face coverings within to optimally mitigate contamination, and they will encourage longer stays and larger gatherings – something we might wish to avoid at this juncture.
Compounding the risk is absence of hand washing stations. Residents will be unable to effectively cleanse as “sanitizer” is merely an adjunct to proper hand washing technique with soap and water.
The inconvenient truth is that for reopening public spaces where gatherings are inevitable, public toilet facilities are not safe spaces at this time.
Unless our residents can be assured otherwise, from an epidemiological perspective the port-a-potties represent an unnecessary and unjustifiable health risk to individual and community health. If effective mitigation against viral spread is the healthcare priority for Westport, providing portable toilets to the public during this early reopening phase may be inadvisable.