VAIL — Brian Counselman removes a panel from an intake vent beneath Vail Mountain School and a purple glow emanates from the duct.
“Please don’t ask me the specifics on this,” says the longtime facilities manager of the 100,000 square-foot building.
The specifics of the Synexis Dry Hydrogen Peroxide biodefense system, the proprietary technology tucked into 86 ducts in the ceilings and walls of Vail Mountain School, are complicated, yet promising. They’re also part of the reason the private school plans to begin educating its 450 students in classrooms five days a week later this month.
Although this building is among the first in Colorado to have the disinfection system installed, other school districts and public buildings are lining up for installation of the technology, too.
Deals are pending and “demand is extremely strong in the state of Colorado,” said Synexis Senior Vice President Douglas Bosma, who lives in the Vail Valley and whose children attend Vail Mountain School.
“It’s especially strong here in the high country, namely because we have gotten those big-name backers to go forward with the technology already,” he said.
Bosma declined to name school districts or other municipalities that are interested in the system, saying he wanted to wait until deals were finalized.
Town of Vail officials looked at the Synexis system at Vail Mountain School and are planning to install dozens of the company’s devices in public buildings and the town’s 35 buses.
“There is a simplicity of the system without needing chemical products that really piqued our interest right out of the gate,” Town Manager Scott Robson said.
Vail is spending $160,000 on the first wave of installations in buses, town hall, recreation buildings and other indoor public spaces.
Robson said the town still is directing additional funds to additional cleaning, including use of electrostatic misting equipment to disinfect surfaces.
“This is another tool in our cleaning effort,” he said. “I would expect that our initial use of this technology will grow. If you begin to look at the payback on our investment, we might be able to save on spending on additional chemicals and we won’t have to close public facilities while we are cleaning. It’s a pretty significant payback from a taxpayer’s perspective.”
Robson said other municipalities are watching Vail and eager to see how the system works and how effective it is at controlling the spread of contagion.
“At the end of the day, this is not just about public health,” Robson said. “It’s about what are the tools we can implement to improve the economy and get society back to some level of normalcy.”
System has its roots in the military
Lenexa, Kansas-based Synexis was founded by James Lee, the inventor of Dry Hydrogen Peroxide gas technology.
Lee served in the U.S. Army specializing in defense against chemical, radiological and biological attacks and directed the chemistry department at West Point Academy. He founded Lee Antimicrobial in 2001 — the predecessor to Synexis — to help reduce the risk of microbial threats inside buildings using his patented Dry Hydrogen Peroxide biodefense systems.
Synexis has at least 17 patents, including one awarded last month for a device that produces non-hydrated purified hydrogen peroxide gas. The system uses UV radiation technology, which is widely used in wastewater treatment. The Synexis devices can be installed in rooms or ducts and produce hydrogen peroxide gas.
The company is purposely vague about just how the devices work but they use ultraviolet light and an air-permeable substrate structure to create the microbe-killing Dry Hydrogen Peroxide gas. The system requires air and humidity to activate the chemical process and is safe for breathing.
Vail Mountain School administrators aren’t saying how much they spent on the system, only that the amount was “six figures.” The devices, which run 24-hours a day all year long, are part of the K-12 school’s contagion-limiting strategy that includes additional cleaning, masks, barriers and other protective equipment, and measures to limit crowding.
Head of School Michael Imperi hosted a town meeting last week with parents, faculty and staff to detail the school’s safety plan for the coming academic year. Response to the new technology has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he said.
Lee built the technology as a tool to protect people inside buildings. Many systems can detect radiation or a chemical threat in real time but biological events are typically not recognized until there is a problem. The Synexis systems promise to eliminate viruses, bacteria, mold, insects, pollen and other organic compounds that can be distributed through the air inside a building.
The Synexis team is busy as demand peaks for the systems. All sales pitches are based on “data, facts and a scientific approach,” Bosma said.
“We do not go on hypotheticals,” he said. “Everything we state or present has been backed with nine to 10 years of validation and credibility and testing, not only in third-party lab settings but in real world interventions, too.”
For example, after a virulent bug leveled 25 Los Angeles Dodgers players and staffers in February 2018, the baseball team installed the Synexis systems in the clubhouse and illness rates fell. Several other professional teams have installed the systems in training facilities and clubhouses. The list of teams includes the Tampa Bay Rays, the Kansas City Royals, the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals.
(Major League Baseball on Monday announced that 13 Cardinals players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week, on top of four of the team’s players testing positive in early July. The team played four of its six games since the season restart at home, with two on the road in Minnesota.)
“It’s really giving a building an immune system”
Synexis technicians measured microbial molecules in the air inside Vail Mountain School before installing the system and will return in two weeks to measure the “bioburden” — essentially organic compounds in the air — to gauge the effectiveness of the system.
In the initial testing, the technicians took samples in drawers and behind desks and “other obscure spots to get a good baseline reading,” Counselman said.
“This is good for an independent school,” said Kathleen Hogan, the school’s director of marketing and communication. “We have the (spacious) facility to make sure we keep kids distanced and we have the ability to invest in the technology.”
The school, which charges $28,000 to $30,900 a year in tuition, will follow Eagle County public health guidelines but it is not tied to the mandates of the Eagle County School District.
Eagle County Schools last week released a 38-page guidebook for re-opening that includes details for mandatory masks, regular screenings and cleanings, and other strategies to limit crowding. Public schools will follow the county’s epidemiological indicator that could require full remote learning for the first part of the school year if the number of new cases in the county does not fall soon.
(Since July 20, the number of new cases in Eagle County has fallen to a seven-day moving average of 6.29 cases, down from more than 15 in the middle of July.)
If Eagle County cases continue to fall, the district plans to begin in-person instruction four days a week for elementary and middle schools, beginning Aug. 25. High schoolers in the district will have a hybrid schedule blending remote and in-class instruction.
The plan has consequences for positive cases. If a single student tests positive for COVID-19, entire classes and even grade levels will be required to quarantine for 14 days, with some exceptions for teachers. Multiple positives will close schools for 14 days.
Vail Mountain School has an equally comprehensive plan in place and will follow the regulations issued by Eagle County public health officials. The school, like many in Colorado’s resort communities, has seen increasing demand for enrollment as urban families flee cities for homes in the mountains.
The school’s gym has six of the Synexis devices. The library has four. The bigger classrooms have two and most of the rooms have one unit. That’s in addition to units on all six of the school’s intake vents that distribute fresh air into the school.
One challenge: no one can leave windows open, which is a drawback for Vail, where late summer and fall temperatures are pleasant during the day.
There is a growing chorus of epidemiologists improving the science around the transmission of COVID-19. New peer-reviewed studies show the likelihood of catching the disease from a surface is low, contradicting earlier studies that suggested the virus could live on surfaces for as long as six days. The Synexis system cleans air as well as surfaces by spreading the hydrogen peroxide gas “into every cubic inch of a room,” Bosma said.
“It’s really giving a building an immune system,” he said.