Each week, OMRF President Dr. Stephen Prescott opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from OMRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Adam Cohen.
With holidays around the corner, many of us are thinking about visiting family or having loved ones visit us. Probably not coincidentally, Southwest Airlines announced they’ll once again sell middle seats, joining American and United in filling flights.
Is it safe to fly these days?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
Harvard’s T.H. Chan College of Public Health last week released a 187-page study concluding that air travel “is as safe or substantially safer than the routine activities people undertake during these times.” However, it’s important to note that the airline industry underwrote this study.
Planes do have robust systems for filtering and circulating air, pulling it from the cabin many times an hour, filtering it, and then mixing it with fresh air before pumping it back in. A recent Department of Defense study used mannequins to expel simulated SARS-CoV-2 particles to examine how the virus behaves in a plane.
The researchers concluded that if passengers wore masks continuously, very little of the virus spreads. They found the plane’s air filtering systems removed it from the air 15 times faster than in a typical home and even five times more quickly than what’s recommended for hospital operating rooms and patient isolation rooms.
Specifically, the researchers concluded you’d have to be sitting next to an infected person for a whopping 54 hours to receive a dangerous dose of airborne virus. But before you book your ticket, real-world case studies are less reassuring.
A report in October found 13 of 49 passengers on a seven-hour flight to Dublin later contracted Covid-19, with spread most likely occurring in-flight while most passengers wore masks and many sat well apart from one another. Another case involved a woman traveling from London to Hanoi who appears to have infected up to 15 passengers and crew members.
All told, the CDC has investigated about 1,600 cases of people traveling while infected. Still, due to the difficulty of pinpointing where infections originated, it can’t definitively identify a case originating on a plane.
Where does that leave us?
I’d say the risk of contracting Covid-19 on a flight is low, but it’s far from nonexistent. If you find there’s a compelling reason to fly, wear a mask at all times during travel. You might even forgo in-flight snacks and beverages. Sanitize often, and keep as much physical distance as possible from other passengers.