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How risky is flying during a pandemic? What we know and how to make it safer

November 17, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Should you travel via plane this winter considering the explosion of cases of Covid-19 around the world? Know the pitfalls of flying during a pandemic and how to reduce the risk if you must fly.

"I'm particularly worried about air travel," said pediatrician Dr. David Rubin, who directs PolicyLab, a research and public policy center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"If you're on a big plane now there's a reasonable chance that someone who's infected with Covid-19 is going to be on that plane," said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who is a leading expert in aerosol transmission of viruses.

Early studies, done before airlines required masks to be worn at all times, have uncovered a few, rare cases of Covid-19 transmission on planes -- although thorough contact tracing has been a challenge for air travel.

When it comes to infectious disease, airplanes have an excellent safety record because the air people breathe while flying is some of the most filtered air in travel, according to Joseph Allen, who directs the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

"The air in (many) planes is a 50/50 mix of outdoor air and recirculated air," Allen said.

When those ventilation systems are running and everyone is masked, the risk of Covid-19 is greatly reduced, according to Marr.

"During boarding that's when there's usually no ventilation -- the planes don't have their auxiliary power units going, they're not often tied into the gate-based ventilation systems," Allen said.

"We've done measurements on airplanes when people are boarding, and we see high levels of carbon dioxide, which is an indicator that there's insufficient ventilation," Allen said.

"Think about the entire travel-related experience," Allen said.

In May, he wrote a blog post viewed millions of times that defined the likelihood of catching the virus with this equation: "Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time. " Apply that to air travel and it follows that shorter flights will expose you to less virus, thus reducing your risk.

If you have to take an Uber, Lyft or taxi to the airport, make sure you, your family and the driver are all masked throughout the journey -- and be sure to roll down the windows to encourage air flow, Allen said.

If you're high risk, you might consider adding a face shield over the face mask, said Dr. Henry Wu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

If you must take a bathroom break on the plane, that's all the more reason for having hand sanitizer at the ready, Wu said.

Taking that precaution works both ways, Allen said.

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