How many people have potentially spread coronavirus on airplanes?

coronavirus on airplanes
Photo via BreakingTravelNews/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

About 11,000 people have been exposed to the coronavirus on airplanes, according to a recent study by the CDC. 

The study examined 1,600 cases of people who “flew at risk,” according to the Washington Post. Some of the people included in the study fell ill soon after flights, but the complex challenge of contact tracing and COVID-19’s long incubation period made it impossible for the agency to decisively confirm a single coronavirus case transmitted via airplane. 

Recent scientific studies have pointed to likely cases of transmission on long-distance flights, however, and the CDC has emphasized that “an absence of cases identified or reported is not evidence that there were no cases.”

“CDC is not able to definitively determine that potential cases were associated (or not) with exposure in the air cabin or through air travel, given the numerous opportunities for potential exposure associated with the entire travel journey and widespread global distribution of the virus,” CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey told the Post. 

The CDC has previously advised the public that viruses like the coronavirus do not spread easily on airplanes, thanks to their unique method of filtering air. It is all but impossible to avoid close contact with large quantities of people while travelling, however, and that inherently enhances risk. 

Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard University, called airplanes “excellent vectors for viral spread” of coronavirus. He did note that flights are “not the hotbed of infectivity” that many people assume, however. According to KHN, experts point to the HEPA filters installed in most airplanes as big factors in slowing viral spread. The filters, combined with the fact that “air in plane cabins is completely changed 10-12 times per hour” makes it highly unlikely that a person will be infected by someone several rows away.

It does little to protect from people in closer proximity, however. Particularly in instances of subpar enforcement of distancing measures by airlines, the chances of infection from someone seated next to, across from, directly in front of, or directly behind you are high. Some airlines, including “Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, and JetBlue” are keeping middle seats open and engaging in careful cleanings between flights, according to KHN.

As noted by the CDC, “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” If you must travel for work or other essential purposes, ensure that you—and those around you—wear masks for the entire trip. Make sure to maintain a distance of at least six feet, use hand sanitizer frequently, and wash your hands thoroughly and often. 

Sources: Washington Post, KHN, CDC

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