Air travel – a staple of prepandemic life that was one of the hardest hit when the coronavirus began to spread – still raises a lot of concerns for people worried about catching COVID-19.
Even more are ready to return to the skies as Labor Day approaches.
Six months after the start of the crisis, more travelers are flying as airports and airlines take all kinds of measures to reduce the risk of transmission.
More than 516,000 people passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on September 1 – about six times more than on April 14, when the lowest number was recorded during the pandemic. (But that’s still only a quarter of the passenger volume seen on the same day in 2019.)
Some state officials are reassuring the public that it is safe to fly, citing the lack of airline-linked coronavirus cases.
“The evidence is the evidence and I think it’s something that is safe for people,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said last week during a roundtable with aviation executives at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“You just haven’t seen the airlines cause epidemics.”
“Not as risky” as people think
So how safe is air travel now when it comes to COVID-19 transmission? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention always warns that travel increases the chances of contracting the disease, noting that social distancing is difficult on crowded flights.
But experts were cautiously optimistic.
“In general, I think stealing is not as risky as most people perceive it to be,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America, SAID TODAY.
“People often think of airplanes as the major vectors of transmission, but overall we haven’t seen a lot of data on airborne transmission except for people who are in close proximity to that person… We haven’t heard of major outbreaks on planes. . “
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There have been no confirmed cases of transmission of COVID-19 on U.S. flights, said Katherine Estep, spokesperson for Airlines for America, an industry trade group that represents major North American carriers, in a release to TODAY.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents carriers around the world, noted a report of an “apparently low in-flight transmission rate,” but also acknowledged that little research had been published on the subject.
A disturbing example of what can go wrong is a flight between Greece and Wales on August 25. The passengers included seven people suspected of being potentially infectious and 16 passengers have now tested positive, the BBC reported. Travelers complained that many on board ignored basic precautions.
A study published last month looked at a flight from Israel to Germany in March. The passengers included 24 members of a tour group who had recently had contact with a hotel manager who later tested positive for COVID-19.
As it was a theft six months ago, there were no measures in place to prevent transmission, such as face masks or distant passengers on the plane. When the plane arrived in Germany, seven of the 24 tourists tested positive for COVID-19. What’s more, at least two other passengers also tested positive afterwards – the authors noted that they were unable to contact the 102 people on board plus the crew.
The study found that the two airmen with probable onboard transmission were within two rows of tourists who already had COVID-19.
Another analysis of an international flight, from China to Canada in January, found that a sick passenger had not infected anyone else on board.
Chances of getting sick on a flight
Researchers said factors that could prevent transmission on planes include airflow in the cabin from ceiling to floor and all passengers wearing face masks – a policy that is now being vigorously enforced by airlines. Most viruses do not spread easily on flights due to the way the air circulates and is filtered in planes, the CDC noted.
Carriers like American Airlines have touted the use of high-efficiency particulate filters (HEPA) on board that capture “at least 99.97% of airborne microbes by circulating cabin air every day. 2 to 4 minutes ”.
Policies that leave the middle seat open or otherwise limit the number of passengers on an aircraft also help reduce risk, Adalja said. Airlines have also implemented improved cleanings, temperature checks and acknowledgments of travelers’ health upon check-in.
A recent article by Arnold Barnett, professor of statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, examined the likelihood of an air traveler contracting COVID-19 from a nearby passenger while seated in economy class on a two hour US home network. flight. He assumed everyone was wearing masks.
Barnett calculated the risk to be 1 in 4,300 for full flights, which dropped to 1 in 7,700 when the middle seats were left empty.
It is not clear whether two hours spent on a plane implied a higher risk of COVID-19 infection than two hours doing other daily activities during the pandemic, Barnett concluded in the study.
“You don’t get sick on airplanes any more than anywhere else,” Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, wrote to the Washington Post. “The required aviation systems do a very good job of controlling airborne bacteria and viruses. “
Experts were more concerned about the spread of the coronavirus before flights.
“My concern has really been that airports are funneling people into hallways, jets and metal detectors,” Dr. Michael Mina, epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said in a briefing the week. last. “The whole process of airports… and crushing people together. We know this virus can be airborne and can persist for a bit. “
For this reason, Mina has chosen not to travel and has not flown since February, he noted.
Any part of the trip where you can’t socially get away is riskier because the virus is transmitted most effectively when people are in close contact, including at the airport food court and standing at the front door. boarding, Adalja added. He also believed that the behavior of people at the destination was generally riskier than the trip itself.
If you are planning to fly soon, Adalja recommended taking all the usual precautions while traveling: wash your hands frequently, wear a face mask if needed, avoid crowded parts of the airport, and try to stay 6 feet away. everybody. Always carry hand sanitizer with you.
Adalja is a strong advocate for face shields, which he believes are superior to face masks because they are easier to wear, protect your eyes, and keep you from touching your face. If given a choice, he would wear a face shield on an airplane, but noted that some airlines may have rules specifically requiring a face shield.
Some studies have shown that the window seat may be better to avoid getting sick because it offers the least contact with other passengers, but Adalja was skeptical. It all depends on who is sitting next to you, as it’s usually 10 to 15 minutes of proximity – not fleeting contact – that transmits the new coronavirus virus, he said.
If you are more likely to contract the severe form of COVID-19, consider whether it is worth the risk to fly. Do not fly if you are sick or have been in contact with someone who is sick. These are all important things to keep in mind as the holiday season approaches.