Read This Before You Fly Anywhere for the Holidays

Recent studies have deepened our understanding of in-flight Covid-19 risks

Mariana Lenharo
Elemental
Published in
7 min readNov 19, 2020

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Photo: Darryl Brooks/EyeEm/Getty Images

After hitting a historic low in the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of air travelers in the U.S has been slowly ratcheting up. On October 18, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened over 1 million air travelers in a single day, an emblematic number that hadn’t been reached since March. With the holiday season approaching, even more people may be encouraged to hop on a plane to visit their families.

“I do have a general sense that people are getting a little tired of not traveling or being isolated from their family and friends. They are looking forward to the holidays to get back together,” says Henry Wu, MD, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. That, of course, is concerning given that Covid-19 numbers are hitting daily records in the U.S., having reached over 170,000 cases on November 13, and may continue to rise particularly with colder weather, according to Wu.

But here’s the good news: “We are learning a lot on how to prevent this infection on an aircraft […]. The precautions in place are certainly much better than they were early in this outbreak,” Wu says.

Over five months ago, when I first wrote about the risks of flying during the pandemic, there wasn’t strong evidence of SARS-CoV-2 transmission aboard an aircraft. But with more data available, this has changed. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently reported that, up until early October, there had been 44 reported cases of Covid-19 likely acquired during a flight.

One of the largest clusters connected with a flight was seen in passengers flying from London to Hanoi on March 2. A 27-year-old woman seated in business class experienced a sore throat and was coughing throughout the flight. When she was later diagnosed with Covid-19, a tracing effort…

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Mariana Lenharo
Elemental

Science and health journalist with a special interest in evidence-based medicine and epidemics. Columbia Journalism School alumna. mari.lenharo@gmail.com.