(UPDATE: See the follow-up article: Phoenix Air-System Company Walks Back COVID Hype)
Dream City Church, the north Phoenix megachurch set to host a Donald Trump rally on June 23, claims it has solved the pandemic problem in its auditorium, making it safe for anyone who wants to attend.
In a video posted on Sunday, Senior Pastor Luke Barnett and Chief Operations Officer Brendon Zastrow announce happily that the church has installed a new air-purification system that kills 99.9 percent of the coronavirus. The technology, they say, was developed by members of the church.
Dream City Church reportedly has 3,000 seats, though it's unclear whether that many Trump supporters intend to attend tomorrow afternoon's rally; headlines from Trump's event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday focused on the many rows of empty seats. But those who do wish to attend won't have to worry about that virus that's going around, Barnett and Zastrow say.
(Following the initial publication of this story, the church removed the video and related post from its Instagram site, but you can see excerpts from a copy preserved by Phoenix New Times below:)
"We've installed Clean Air EXP," Zastrow says. "We have a local Arizona company. It was a technology developed by some members of our church. And we've installed these units. And it kills 99 percent of COVID within 10 minutes."
The system achieves this bit of magic with air "ionization," a word that the pair mangle as they try to pronounce it.
"So when you come into our auditorium, 99 percent of COVID is gone," Barnett says. "So you can know when you come down here, you'll be safe and protected."
A message left with Dream City Church, located at 13613 North Cave Creek Road, wasn't immediately returned.
A man who answered the phone at Clean Air EXP referred Phoenix New Times to the company's president, Jerry McGuire, who later texted that he intended to release a statement this afternoon.
The company's website has a blurb about COVID stating: "COVID-19 REPORT: Lab tests confirm that CleanAir EXP eliminates 99.9% of coronavirus from the air in less than 10 minutes.*"
The footnote states, "* Biosafety lab analysis performed on active coronavirus 229E test surrogate."
Coronavirus 229E is one of the viruses responsible for the common cold that's often used in virus studies.
But even if the technology can eliminate the surrogate virus in 10 minutes, such studies are done in controlled laboratory settings. They don’t necessarily apply to something like the interior of a megachurch. How much air a system can process in a set time would play a role. Clean Air EXP's website states that its home system takes a few hours to purify the air: "Most homes see a 90% reduction of particulates and contaminants within 4 hours, and 99.8% reduction in 6 hours or less."
A larger, commercial system can purify more air than a home unit, presumably. But it's hard to see how 99 percent of COVID-19 could be eliminated from the church auditorium before people arrive. Also, saying attendees would be "safe and protected" when they come to the rally overstates the ability of any air-purifying system to prevent transmission by infected people in a crowd.
Noting that "the church has indicated that they will be handing out masks to eventgoers and taking temperatures upon check-in," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego issued a statement on Monday saying she still doesn't believe "an event of this magnitude can be held safely," particularly with case numbers spiking in the city and elsewhere in Arizona.
Could the miracle of ionization really help Trump supporters at the rally? An April article in Business Insider dubbed "bipolar ionization" (BPI) a "secret weapon" against COVID-19 that airports and hospitals have been using.
Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of pathology at New York University, told Business Insider that "ions produce a chemical reaction on the cell membrane surface that inactivates the virus... It can reduce 99.9% of microbes in a matter of minutes."
Reached by New Times, Dr. Tierno said the concept has to be put into context, and that no system can protect someone against an infected person sneezing in the seat next to them.
"The short answer to your question is NO, you will ABSOLUTELY NOT BE SAFE AND PROTECTED. When you are dealing with hundreds or thousands of people in an AUDITORIUM, some of whom will carry the virus you WILL NOT BE absolutely PROTECTED," Dr. Tierno, using all-caps to help make his points, wrote in an email.
Tierno said taking temperatures at the door and handing out masks should help, but the masks must be worn, and people must remain socially distant from each other, skipping seats around each person.
"BPI will help over time to reduce numbers of virus BUT NOT ABSOLUTELY eradicate it without doing the aforementioned," he said. "I would advise you not to present FALSE hope to attendees by spreading false statements."
It's not clear that Clean Air EXP uses BPI, which isn't mentioned on its website. Clean Air EXP's "Purification Unit uses the power of nature to clean, refresh, and energize the air you breathe," the site states, adding that it employs "natural negative ion generating air purification."
Jeffrey Siegal, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto who specializes in filtration, indoor air quality, and ventilation, expressed skepticism about Dream City Church's claims after looking at Clean Air EXP's website.
"This thing is not going to do anything in terms of protecting people in that space. Period," he said. "We’re in the midst of this quite serious pandemic and health situation, and the last thing people need is false information about air cleaning technology."
"It is true that you can build a system — and we’ve had them for decades — that will scrub the air going through the system of 99.99 percent of germs, including viruses, depending on how it works," said David Weber, medical director at the University of South Carolina Hospitals' Departments of Hospital Epidemiology (Infection Prevention). "But that doesn’t prove that, at the floor level, it’s going to reduce your infection risk. That’s a separate question."
UPDATE: The church later released a short statement about its installation of the Clean Air EXP system:
"In an effort to make our experience as safe as possible during these trying times, Dream City Church contracted Howard Air to install CleanAir EXP air purification units. These units were invented by a local Arizona company IONaer Arizona LLC, d/b/a CleanAir EXP. CleanAir EXP is a revolutionary air and surface purification solution that combines the most sophisticated in-room sensors with the latest air purification technology to clean indoor air and surfaces of viruses, allergens, pathogens, odors, smoke, mold, ozone and harmful chemicals."
Clean Air EXP's president Jerry McGuire later texted that a "news update" had been posted on the company's website. The update doesn't address the church's claims or the Trump rally, but boasts about its product. McGuire didn't answer questions in a follow-up text.
On June 23, Clean Air EXP changed the information about COVID-19 on its home page. The screenshot above from the June 22 story differs slightly from the new one, which emphasizes the "surrogate" part of the product tests:
New Times staff writer Josh Kelety contributed to this article.
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