Harvard study finds flying can be safer than grocery shopping right now

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Taking a flight to visit family this holiday season could pose a lower risk of contracting the coronavirus than going grocery shopping for your Thanksgiving day feast, a new study from Harvard suggests.

Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that airplane travel amid the pandemic is less of a risk than day-to-day activities like dining out or grocery shopping.

Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health’s new Aviation Public Health Initiative is paid for by the aviation industry, including airlines, plane manufacturers and airports. Harvard researchers state that the findings in the report, though, are their own independent conclusions.

For the “gate-to-gate analysis,” researchers used computer models to review airflow in the airplane cabins. They determined that the risk of spreading coronavirus is reduced by onboard ventilation systems that continuously circulate and refresh the air supply, filtering out 99% of the particles that cause COVID-19. Plus, virus droplets from one passenger are unlikely to infect another because exhaled air is dispersed in a “downward direction.”

“This ventilation effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights,” the report says.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Other measures that mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus on flights include airline rules that require universal use of face masks by passengers and crew members during the flights as well as social distancing protocols during the boarding and deplaning process. Plus, airlines have extra disinfection measures on high-touch surfaces, the report says.

While the low airfares currently available are tempting, it’s understandable if you feel conflicted about flying during a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still warns that traveling increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. A new study published in Eurosurveillance, a European medical journal on infectious disease surveillance, linked 57 COVID-19 cases to a 7-hour international flight to Ireland. The flight that occurred in summer 2020 was 17% full, according to researchers.

In September, the CDC published a study that found adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant two weeks prior to becoming ill. Interestingly, those who tested positive and negative for COVID-19 went to gyms, salons, office settings and private gatherings with less than 10 people at about the same rate. Dining out, the CDC explained, is more risky because masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking whereas going to the stores and other indoor activities don’t preclude mask use.

As we approach the holiday season, it appears more people are feeling comfortable flying once again. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration on Oct. 18 screened 1.03 million travelers in a single day, which Afar points out is the first time it surpassed 1 million since mid-March when the pandemic grounded a lot of travelers.

Have you considered flying during the pandemic? Do you think airlines are doing enough to protect your safety?

Disease & Illness, Health, News, Travel
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About the Author
Brittany Anas
Hi, I'm Brittany Anas (pronounced like the spice, anise ... see, that wasn't too embarrassing to say, now was it?) My professional writing career started when I was in elementary school and my grandma paid me $1 for each story I wrote for her. I'm a former newspaper reporter, with more than a decade of experience Hula-hooping at planning meetings and covering just about every beat from higher-education to crime to science for the Boulder Daily Camera and The Denver Post. Now, I'm a freelance writer, specializing in travel, health, food and adventure.

I've contributed to publications including Men's Journal, Forbes, Women's Health, American Way, TripSavvy, Eat This, Not That!, Apartment Therapy, Denver Life Magazine, 5280, Livability, The Denver Post, Simplemost, USA Today Travel Tips, Make it Better, AAA publications, Reader's Digest, Discover Life and more.

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