October 4, 2022

  • MIT researcher Dr. Arnold Barnett said the risk of contamination on airplanes is likely higher now than earlier in the pandemic.
  • The contagiousness and defense evasion of the BA.5 variant offers even more danger when traveling.
  • Although there is no longer a federal mandate for masks on airplanes, experts say wearing a mask can offer protection.

In January 2021, passengers on a full 2-hour flight had a one in 1,000 chance of contracting COVID-19, a study published July 2 in Health Management Science suggests.

Researchers from MIT used COVID-19 infection rates from June 2020 to February 2021, along with data on the airborne spread of the virus, to model the risk of COVID-19 infection at different passenger capacities during during the study period. The study suggests that from December 2020 to January 2021, passengers were at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 while flying.

The co-author of the study Dr. Arnold Barnett told Insider that the risk of infection on US planes is likely “significantly higher” right now, due to a lack of mask mandates on planes and fuller flights.

Seat proximity matters, studies show

The Omicron BA.5 subvariant is the predominant COVID strain in the US and many new cases are reinfections, Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Natalie Musumeci mentioned earlier.

People are more likely to contract COVID-19 indoors, according to the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially without proper air filtration or masks. However, commercial airplanes, such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 used in this study, are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which reduce the risk of transmission, according to a 2020 report from the Harvard School of Public Health.

A study by US Department of Defense published in October 2020 suggested that a combination of masks and HEPA filters on commercial flights kept the risk of aerosol spread low if a person on board was contagious. However, this study used mannequins that could not speak or move and did not examine droplet transmission, according to the study published in Health Care Management Science in July.

A small study published in November 2020 at Emerging Infectious Diseases tracked 217 passengers on a 10-hour commercial flight when the mask mandate was still in place, and found that 16 people tested positive in the days after they arrived. The study suggested that seat proximity was a high transmission risk index.

The risk of infection is probably higher now

The MIT researchers found that while the risk of infection dropped to 1 in 6,000 on half-full flights in the summer of 2020, that number rose to about 1 in 1,000 in December 2020 and January 2021 on full planes.

Barnett told Insider that because of the contagiousness of the BA.5 variant, the lack of mask mandates on public transit and much more crowded planes from 2020, he expects the risk of infection to be higher now than the study found.

The risk is probably even greater on flights longer than two hours or for passengers on multiple connecting flights, he said. Barnett said traveling on other forms of transportation, such as buses and trains, may pose a higher risk because people often have more exposure time and less air filtration.

He said he regularly travels by plane wearing an N95 mask and tries to keep his distance from other travelers when he can.

Experts say you should wear masks when flying

From April 2022, the Transportation Security Administration no longer imposes a federal mask requirement for people traveling on airplanes.

However, both the CDC and other public health experts we recommend wearing a mask on airplanes. Airplane HEPA filters don’t always work when you get on or off the plane, and they won’t always protect you from exposure, said Gigi Gronvall, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. he previously told Insider.

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