Airline passengers’ risk of contracting COVID may be higher, MIT Research

  • MIT researcher Dr. Arnold Barnett said the risk of infection on planes is likely higher now than it was before the pandemic.
  • The evasion of immunity and contagiousness of the BA.5 variant offers even more risk when traveling.
  • Although there is no longer a federal mask mandate on planes, experts say wearing one can offer protection.

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

The MIT researchers used COVID-19 infection rates from June 2020 to February 2021, along with data on the spread of the virus in the air, to model the risk of contracting COVID-19 in different passenger capacities 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.

Study co-author Dr. Arnold Barnett, an MIT professor who specializes in aviation safety, told Insider that the risk of infection on U.S. aircraft flights

Seat Proximity Matters, Studies Show

Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant is the dominant COVID strain in the US, and many new cases are reinfections, Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Natalie Musumeci previously reported.

People are more likely to contract COVID-19 in closed indoor spaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), especially without proper air filtration or masks. But commercial aircraft, like the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 used in this study, are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which lower the risk of transmission, according to a 2020 report from the School of Health. Harvard Public.

A small study published in November 2020 in Emerging Infectious Diseases followed 217 passengers on a 10-hour commercial flight, when mandatory mask wearing was still in effect, and found that 16 people tested positive in the days after they arrived. The study suggested that seating proximity was a strong predictor of transmission risk.

The risk of infection is probably higher now, according to an MIT researcher

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 1 in 1,000 around December 2020 and January 2021 on full planes.

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

The risk is likely to be even higher on flights longer than two hours, or for passengers on multiple connecting flights, he said.

Barnett 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 still wear masks when you fly

As of 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 continue to recommend wearing a mask on airplanes. Aircraft HEPA filters don’t always work when getting on or off the plane, and won’t always protect you from exposure, Gigi Gronvall, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously told Insider.

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