Worry of Flying Is a COVID-Period Conundrum

The holidays are just approaching as COVID-19 case rates rise at a record pace across the country, leading to dire warnings from public health experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued warnings and updated guidelines for family gatherings. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a White House coronavirus advisor and director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said in interviews that his children will not be coming home for Thanksgiving because of the coronavirus risk. “Relatives who get on a plane and are abandoned at an airport,” he told CBS News. “And then walk in the door and say ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ – that’s something to worry about.”

Are the Americans listening? Maybe not. Especially when airlines, which have been hit by major sales declines since the March pandemic, tell passengers that they can travel with peace of mind and sweeten the offer with special holiday fares.

Airlines argue that more is now known about the virus, and recent industry-sponsored studies show that flying is just as safe as regular daily activities. They also tout policies like mask mandates and improved cleaning to protect travelers from the coronavirus.

Time for a reality check.

Americans who choose to fly are subject to evolving COVID safety guidelines, which vary by airline. This is due to the persistent lack of a uniform federal strategy. Under the Trump administration, government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to enact and enforce national guidelines for air travel.

And while President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that he will take a more robust federal approach to combating COVID-19, which can lead to such measures, the Trump administration remains accountable over the upcoming holiday season.

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Airlines say it is safe to fly during the pandemic. Is it?

The aviation industry is putting its security clearance into a study funded by its leading trade group Airlines for America and conducted by researchers from Harvard University and a Department of Defense-led study with support from United Airlines.

Both reports modeled disease transmission on an airplane, provided that everyone was masked and the airplane’s highly effective air filtration systems were working. The Harvard report concluded that the risk of in-flight COVID-19 transmission was “lower than other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out,” while the DOD study concluded that one person hypothetically, you would have to sit on an airplane for 54 hours to catch COVID-19 from another passenger.

However, the assumptions made in these studies have limitations.

Despite the increased enforcement of the wearing of masks by the airlines, violations against passengers continue to be reported. Most airlines say that passengers who completely refuse to wear masks will not only be denied boarding, but will also put their future travel privileges at risk. According to recent press reports, Delta has put hundreds of these passengers on a no-fly list. Some passengers may still be trying to get around the rule by removing their mask to eat or drink for long periods of time on the flight, and flight attendants may feel like they can stop them.

And while public health experts believe that aircraft have highly effective filtration systems throughout the cabin that filter and circulate the air every few minutes, there is still time when someone who unknowingly has COVID-19 takes off their mask, to eat or drink So that viral particles can reach other nearby particles before being sucked up by the filter.

Public health experts said comparing time on a plane versus time in the grocery store was apples and oranges.

Even if you wear a mask in both places, the duration of contact can be very different in both regions, said Dr. Henry Wu, Director of the Emory TravelWell Center and Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

“If it’s a long flight and you’ve been in this situation for hours, you build up over time. So a one-hour flight is 1/10 the risk of a 10-hour flight, ”said Wu. “While most people don’t spend more than an hour in the supermarket.”

In addition, both studies analyzed only one aspect of an itinerary – the risk on board the aircraft. They did not take into account the associated risks of air travel, such as reaching the airport or waiting in security lines. And public health experts say these activities present opportunities for COVID exposure.

“There’s a lot of interaction between you arriving at the airport and getting into an airplane seat,” said Lisa Lee, a former CDC official and vice president of research and innovation at Virginia Tech.

And while Wu said he agreed that an airplane cabin is likely safer than other environments, with high COVID-19 rates in communities in the US, “There is no doubt that people fly when they are sick, whether they are know or not. ”

Another data point touted by the aviation industry was that of the estimated 1.2 billion people who have flown so far in 2020, only 44 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to air travel, according to the International Air Transport Association. a worldwide trading group.

However, that number only reflects case reports published in the academic literature and is unlikely to capture the true picture of how many COVID cases are linked to flights, experts say.

“It is very difficult to prove, if you get sick after traveling, exactly where you were abandoned,” said Wu.

The low number could also be due to systemic inconsistencies in contact tracing after a person with COVID-19 took a flight. In a recent case, a woman infected with the coronavirus died on a flight and fellow travelers were not informed of their exposure.

That could be due to the U.S.’s decentralized public health system, said Lee, the former CDC official, as contact tracing is done through state and local health departments. The CDC will only assist with contact tracing when there are interstate travel, which is likely to be the case during a flight. However, during the pandemic, the agency was “less consistent than in the past,” Lee said.

“Let’s say there is a case of COVID on a flight. The question is who should handle it. The state that [the flight] started in? That it ended? The CDC? It’s not clear, ”said Lee.

Is now the time to fly?

Most airlines have implemented security measures that go beyond the requirement of masks, e.g. This includes, for example, the completion of health questionnaires by the passengers, the improvement of cleaning in aircraft, the reduction of interactions between crew members and passengers as well as the installation of Plexiglas stations and contactless check-in at service counters.

But many have also withdrawn from other efforts, such as the promise to block the middle seats. United eased its social distancing policy to allow empty middle seats between customers at the end of May, despite previous complaints from customers that flights were full. American Airlines stopped blocking center seats in July. Other airlines plan to occupy seats after Thanksgiving, with Southwest ending the lockdown of center seats from Dec. 1 and JetBlue planning to increase capacity to 85% on Dec. 2. In January Alaska Airlines plans to end the lockdown of the center seats and JetBlue will fly at full capacity. Delta announced this week that it will continue to block the middle seat through March 30th.

This policy change is due to airlines’ lack of cash, said Robert Mann, an aviation analyst. This also reflects the growing demand from consumers who feel more comfortable again, especially with holiday gatherings coming up.

“It was easy to keep the center seats empty when there wasn’t a lot of demand,” said Mann.

Now, instead, they hope that new services of the COVID era will allay passengers’ fears.

American, United, Alaskan and Hawaiian, among other things, offer a type of preflight COVID test for customers who are traveling to Hawaii or to certain foreign destinations and who also need a negative test or quarantine upon arrival. JetBlue recently partnered with a company to offer home COVID tests that provide quick results for travelers to Aruba.

Airlines will likely expand their pre-flight COVID testing options over the next several months. “This is the new dimension of airline competition,” said Mann.

But is it a new dimension in travel security?

Emorys Wu said that there is certainly a risk of contracting the coronavirus if you travel by plane, and travelers should have a higher threshold when deciding whether to go home on vacation than in years past.

After all, COVID case rates are rising nationwide.

“I think the fewer people overcrowding the airports, the less movement in general across the country will help us control the epidemic,” said Wu. “We are concerned that the colder weather will make things worse.”

Victoria Knight:
[email protected], @victoriaregisk

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