Studies report in-flight COVID-19 transmission. Good news?

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You’ve probably seen a flurry of scary headlines about studies showing that COVID-19 transmission can happen on planes.  For example, I noticed this headline from a site called MedPageToday: “Unfriendly Skies: COVID-19 Transmission on a Plane
— High above the clouds, small study finds airborne transmission might be possible.”  That headline was obviously designed to scare you.

To me, the headlines were disturbing because 1) my understanding is that the combination good air filtration systems on planes and passengers wearing masks makes COVID-19 in-flight transmission extremely unlikely; and 2) my wife and I have resumed flying, as evidenced in the photo above.

Fortunately, when you dig deeper into these reports, you’ll find that the news isn’t so scary after all.  Mark, at Miles to Memories, points out that the reported studies are from flights that took place before airlines implemented COVID-19 safety protocols and before they required masks.  Gary, at View from the Wing, goes even further and points out that the tiny number of identified in-flight COVID-19 transmissions is evidence that it was a very rare event even before safety protocols were in place.  Gary writes:

Nonetheless documenting just a handful of cases where inflight spread may have occurred is significant as an argument for the safety of flying because there’s never been a virus studied as extensively and intensively in a short period of time as this one. There are millions of people flying throughout the world week after week during the global pandemic, yet we haven’t been able to identify more flights where the virus spread (though there are probably some). This is highly suggestive that inflight spread is very rare.

Contrast that with recent CDC findings that spread of Covid-19 is linked heavily to dining in restaurants. Indoor activities are conducive to virus spread because the virus becomes aerosolized and viral loads build up the longer an individual shedding the virus spends in the enclosed environment. Restaurants generally lack the filtration and outside air exchange of planes, which is why air travel is much safer than indoor dining.

I think that Mark and Gary made good points.  And please don’t argue the opposite.  My wife and I have another plane to catch soon…

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DaveS

Irresponsible clickbait media (the MedPage item, not you). If all they can find is a handful of cases from the days before safety protocols were in place, while millions of people now fly every day, the risk must be tiny indeed. I believe in necessary safety precautions based on science – masking, social distancing, hand washing – but if lots of people were getting COVID from flying the media would have been all over it. We need to make risk assessment based on accurate information backed by scientific evidence, not paranoia.

JustSaying

I’ve retired so there really is no justification for me flying until I get a vaccination. I take the warnings of science over my desire to be in Paris!

Andrew

I love the people who stand behind science yet can’t point to a study. Reckless? Do you smoke? Do you eat more than 2000 calories in a day? Do you interact with other humans? Do you enjoy being able to feed your family? Do you drive? Do you consume oil from this earth? All have been deemed to put you at more risk by the SCIENCE. Let’s put it this way, and it’s going to be cold to some… FACTS MATTER. How many of your family, friends and people you know through immediate relationship (anyone in your household) do you know that have died from COVID? We’re not even calling it COVID anymore because in EVERY HISTORICAL Seasonal Iteration of a Virus, we reset the counter with the season. Why not this time? Maybe because it doesn’t build the supporting narrative that the very headline we discuss is pushing. If you really chose not to travel because of the risk of a virus with 0.4% mortality, you damn well better not be eating more than 2000 calories a day, and you damn well better not be smoking or eating high fructose corn syrup or using the internet or doing ANYTHING like driving a car or going to Target because ALL have higher risks. Now tell me again who in your family has died of COVID that would otherwise be flying around the world? Come to think of it, tell me who in your family has died of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and other diseases that the above actions ALL ARE KNOWN TO CAUSE AT A SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER RISK THAN COVID. The quote “to those who will sacrifice freedom for a small amount of security deserve NEITHER” could never have been more right. Nobody can look at data and science but everyone wants to stare at the TV or Internet with CNN or FOX on with drool coming out their mouth in a panic and call it science because someone is on the screen with a PhD after their name and the viewer is too stupid to realize that having a PhD in Women’s Multicultural History Studies does NOT make them a Medical Doctor much less someone capable of speaking to any points about Virology nor Immunology. I wish for once I could come on a site and the comments in reply to a perfectly put article were rational…. but no, it’s filled with responses that make it clear the responder has never actually looked at the data, just the yellow journalism. Why do you think the internet and news are famous for “It might be in your house right now and could kill you, tune in tonight at 10…” … This is what happens when we turn our education system into the joke of the world.

Josh

This comment is just irresponsible. Yes, let’s compare things one does to oneself (overeating, seriously?) to an incredibly infectious virus that directly effects the lives of others (and particularly people more at risk than oneself).

Parts Unknown

Obesity cannot be spread via aerosol. You focus on the mortality rate as if that’s the complete measure of impact of the disease. Our summer peak at my hospital saw approximately 45% of our beds occupied by covid patients. Our 24 bed ICU had 38 patients in it, over 30 of which were covid positive at any given time. We had dozens of employees that had to go into 14 day quarantine after contracting the disease from patients. A few of those employees unfortunately didn’t recover. Whether or not you believe the virus is as reported by whatever news media outlet you want to follow, this virus can place an untenable burden on the healthcare system. For whatever reason this doesn’t seem to resonate for some people who instead choose to fixate on the average age of patients who die from covid complications or the other underlying conditions of those patients. The overall mortality rate does not show the overall burden of the virus on the healthcare system. I cannot say it any plainer than that.

Andrew

Once again with the anecdotal evidence… which is precisely why we’re in the situation we’re in. If you are making observations about the condition of the people who come into a dialysis center, your view of the world is that many people have blood disorders. You skipped over one very important point. 30-60k americans die in an average flu season due to seasonal flu. This year the CDC reported 15k deaths from the flu. Can you explain why the seasonal flu had the lowest mortality rates in the history of the recordkeeping of the seasonal flu? And can you explain why it’s very common in a severe flu season to have aerosol transmission of a virus (every flu virus has the same transmission patterns as COVID19), yet in history we’ve never reacted the way we have for this one? Yeah, 6 months ago we reacted because we never have had the combination of a media taking over the medical field. And you literally brushed over the very fundamental questions I asked. If you’re so concerned about health over freedom and individual liberties, why do you not propose the government restrict the foods people eat, the cigarettes people smoke, and the alcohol consumed, all of which kill in excess of 1 million people per year and constantly overwhelm the medical system. Drug overdoses anyone? So we’re talking about the number 1 through 4 killers that the country could easily regulate nearly to zero fatalities, but you’re focused on something that isn’t a major threat to most, doesn’t have the science to back the prevention measures being taken, but you blindly fall in line behind measures that. lack science, data, or even rational thought behind them, and blast anyone who disagrees with you as a denier, anti-science, etc. Sorry, but you may want to look up the scientific method. We don’t state things as fact and then have to disprove them to make them so, its the other way around. Nothing is fact until it’s proven so, and those who come up with their state of existence in any other way are the very definition of uneducated and unenlightened. Those who lack the ability to question until proven fact are the very reason the United States trails. People in the US know who Kim Kardhasian is wearing, yet don’t know who the secretary of state is, or who can and cannot enact laws in the country. It’s why the United States has slipped so far in average education. People have come to believe what they read on the internet and question anything that isn’t spewed from whichever side of the table they sit on. People respond to arguments just as you have… lacking any facts, just forming decisions for yourself and demanding those around you follow suit based on emotion and social engineering.

Parts Unknown

I gave it a shot, I’m sorry you’re either unable or unwilling to understand the situation.

Fiona

These deniers don’t want to listen. They have already made up their minds, regardless of what science and statistics have shown. It’s like a religion to them. No amount of scientific evidence will change that.

Lynn

I’m in total agreement with you, but guess everyone else thinks Greg is being foolish. Not surprising.

Daniel

You’re in a metal tube packed like sardines with air jets blowing any infected air all over the place. People not wearing their masks properly, taking them off to eat and drink. No thanks.

Beej

When does Nick’s paternity leave end?

Jim

To Derek, maybe instead of taking that long car trip you would have been better off flying. It is safer than driving, I’m sure you stopped for gas and meals and stayed in hotels. You talk about the science, then think about restaurants. Flight attendants don’t seem to be getting sick?

stvr

Gary has been particularly far out there on a limb. Look at the CDC Vietnam Hanoi study. Nearly everyone in business class caught COVID from a sick person in that cabin. I asked Gary if he thought maybe they were all in a business class bus gate together but no reply. He has an agenda. Don’t take your advice from someone who sells airline miles for a living.

Sorry. I have more. Need I also remind you that the way COVID spread from Wuhan to every city on the globe was via air travel.

stvr

I can’t help myself today. I really like to think of this blog as being smarter than Gary’s. Let’s not change that!

Miles

@stvr, as you probably know, the spread of covid to 16 passengers (12 in Biz) on a 10-hr flight in March is discussed here:
https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/11/20-3299_article

I personally find the apparent lack of many other superspreader events tied to airline travel to be reassuring…hundreds of thousands of people are flying every day now. I respect those who choose not to fly, but I feel safe on board an airliner if I have a window seat and the middle seat is vacant. I like SWA because the air vents above the seats on their 737s can be directed to blow the filtered air right at my face.

My biggest concern isn’t the plane, but rather the airport shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal. To alleviate this concern I’ve begun paying extra at my home airport to park close in.

YoniPDX

The LHR to Hanoi from March in business class – from what I read is this was pre-mask on a long haul flight.

The Wuhan – SIN – Wuhan also back in March was a clustered tour group – but spread and seating on the flight was not indicative of in-flight transmission.

I think that the best controlled environments that were closest to a lab setting with petrei dishes. That was on the 20+ cruise ships that we’re quarantined and had the best tracking and demographics.

The trends and demographics of fatalities I started tracked last February points to risk of those with the highest annual COD as comorbidities and weighted 95+ in those over 70+ with one or more comorbidities, skew toward males.

While COVID has killed in every age group – in those under 40 with no other risk factors are anomalies out the Bell curve in SD3.

It was all over the news here when a 20 something (no cancer, not obese, no underlying health conditions). Yet just this week OHA walked it back individual never had COVID.

Josh

You do realize that people still take off their masks to eat and drink, right?
Personally, I wish this also weren’t allowed (at least on medium and short haul flights).

quasimodo

It’s all theater…

Jimm

Well, whatever you call it, it’s a gutsy post. I think we all WANT to believe that flying is safe. But is it really? Can’t really rely on the media to be above being biased. Planes are already known for carrying / spreading lots of germs already. Before COVID my wife and I would always wipe down the food trays, chair arms, etc. to reduce the chances of getting sick. But seems like the virus is mainly spread through the air. We live in a world where, in many cases, money is valued more than life. The airlines tell us flying is safe, but should I trust the airlines if my life depended on it? I hope it is safe for the sake of those willing to risk it right now….

Fiona

Only the western media (or those countried with high infection and death rates) is saying flying is safe, which seems a bit paradoxica.

quasimodo

world doesn’t care about LIFE…at all…if it did you would know more about MASS ANIMAL DEATHS and Factory Farming…

CaveDweller

Q
Ur right was in AUS 2 years and Watched their wildfire reports as in a Billion dead . None of the USA gave a Dam just looking for their $19 per month or local stuff .
Always a bigger picture.
#stayinsafecave

Paul

I’m all for reasonable precautions, but jeez people, we have to live our lives. Even with Covid out there, flying is still safer than driving. If there had been a major superspreader event on a plane, you can bet the media would have been all over it.

quasimodo

and even if there is…who cares. it’s never going away….survival of the fittest…

Fiona

I’m really surprised that FM believes coronavirus infections in an enclosed space with recirculating air is a minimal risk. That goes against what SCIENCE is saying. Science advances civilization, not presumptions, hope, and denial. The cabin of a commercial airliner is probably the dirtiest and germ-infested place you will ever encounter for an extended period of time. Like others have already noted, do not fly unless absolutely necessary. Very disappointed in FM. Very…

Last edited 2 years ago by Fiona
Steve

Your SCIENCE also says the air on a plane isn’t recirculated, but completely replaced every 2-3 minutes. Check your science before making these false statements.

Fiona

@Steve “Your SCIENCE also says the air on a plane isn’t recirculated, but completely replaced every 2-3 minutes. Check your science before making these false statements.”

Not recirculated? Wrong. The air in the cabin is mixed at a 50:50 ratio with outside air. Hence the air does contain recirculated air, which means that the coronavirus can spread through the cabin. Check yourself before making false statements.

Steve

Not a false statement. All cabin air is replaced 20-30 times per hour, with recirculated air passing through HEPA filters. I’m not making these statements up.

https://www.boeing.com/confident-travel/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIq_-Y0NOK7AIVmq_ICh2FHgTuEAAYASAAEgISO_D_BwE

https://www.collinsaerospace.com/en/newsroom/Stories/2020/06/Cabin-Air-Cleaner-Than-You-Might-Think

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve
Byron

Where do you get your information on the air systems on air planes?

Alex

Well if you have made up your mind to do it regardless, why pretend you are assessing the risks? I know you have a business to run, but that is really no one’s problem but yours.

David

Is Mark an epidemiologist? How about Gary…an immunologist perhaps? Just checking. Spreading this type of information is reckless and only contributes to prolonging the misery. Sure, lots of us would love to be traveling at the moment.
However if ever there was a time to listen to science, this must be it.

quasimodo

cuz u know…you label something as “Science”…well…it must be right.

“science” is wrong about so many things…it’s going the way of the DODO bird this decade….

science can say whatever the sponsors want it to say.

derek

Unnecessary air travel is foolish. When you are very ill, it is too late to be sorry. Air travel presents many risks of Covid-19 because there’s so many points of exposure, ground transportation, check in, security, gate areas, airplane, and exposure during arrival. Don’t try to convince yourself that air travel is perfectly safe. Instead, travel only when necessary, not for fun.

I love taking flights but despite wearing a mask, got sick anyway while traveling by car on a long trip.

Richard Bupkis

Derek is spot-on above. It’s not complicated, despite many people trying to spin it.
Sorry, I know that encouraging people to travel puts money in your pocket.

Unnecessary travel is foolish, irresponsible and selfish. Period.

Fiona

““Unfriendly Skies: COVID-19 Transmission on a Plane
— High above the clouds, small study finds airborne transmission might be possible.”  That headline was obviously designed to scare you.” -FM
No. That headline was obviously designed to INFORM you of the potential dangers of being trapped in a very small space with 200 other people, who may be infected with the coronavirus.