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

  • MIT researcher Dr Arnold Barnett said the risk of infection on airplanes is likely higher now than at the start of the pandemic.
  • The contagiousness and immune evasion 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 a mask can offer protection.

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

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 at different capacities of passengers during the study period. The study suggests that from around December 2020 to January 2021, passengers had the greatest risk of catching COVID-19 while in flight.

Study co-author Dr. Arnold Barnett, who is an MIT professor specializing in aviation safety, told Insider that the risk of infection on US planes is likely “significantly higher” now, in due to a lack of mask mandates on planes and more comprehensive flights.

Seat proximity matters, studies show

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

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

A small study published in November 2020 in Emerging Infectious Diseases followed 217 passengers on a 10-hour commercial flight, while the mask mandate was still in effect, and found 16 people who tested positive within days of arriving. The study suggested that seat proximity was an important indicator of transmission risk.

Risk of infection likely higher now, MIT researcher says

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 airplanes. full.

Barnett told Insider that due to the contagiousness of the BA.5 variant, lack of mask mandates on public transit, and planes that are much fuller than in 2020, he expects the risk of infection is higher now than was found in the study.

The risk is likely even greater on flights over 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 always wear masks when flying

As of April 2022, the Transportation Security Administration no longer enforces the federal mask requirement for people traveling by plane.

However, the CDC and other public health experts still recommend wearing a mask on planes. Airplane HEPA filters don’t always work when boarding or exiting the plane, and won’t always protect you from exposure, Gigi Gronvall, epidemiologist and principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said. previously told Insider.

Leave a Comment