The holidays are approaching, as COVID-19 case rates nationwide rise at a record rate, leading to dire warnings from public health experts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued warnings and updated instructions regarding family reunions. Dr. Anthony Fauci, counselor and director of the White House Commonwealth, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in interviews that his children would not return home for Thanksgiving because of the dangers of the coronavirus. “Relatives get on a plane and are exposed at an airport,” he told CBS News. “And then walking to the door and saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ – which you have to worry about.”
Do Americans listen? Probably not. Especially when the airlines, which are unfolding from the big revenues from the pandemic that took place in March, tell the passengers that they can travel with confidence and sweeten the agreement with special vacation fares.
Airlines say they now know more about the virus, and recent industry-backed studies show that flying is just as safe as normal daily activities. Policies such as mask commands and improved cleaning are also offered to protect travelers from the coronavirus.
Time for reality check.
Americans who choose to fly will be subject to evolving COVID security policies that vary by airline, as a result of the continuing lack of a unified federal strategy. Under the Trump administration, government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have failed to issue and enforce national air travel directives.
And although President-elect Joe Biden has said he will take a stronger federal approach to tackling COVID-19, which could lead to such actions, the Trump administration remains responsible for the upcoming holiday season.
Here’s what you need to know before booking.
Airlines say it is safe to fly during a pandemic. Is?
The airline industry attributes security to a study funded by its leading commercial group, Airlines for America, and conducted by Harvard University researchers as well as a Secretary of Defense, with the help of United Airlines
Both reports modeled disease transmission on an airplane, assuming that all individuals were covered and that the aircraft’s highly efficient air filtration systems were in operation. The Harvard report concluded that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in flight was “lower than that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as shopping or eating”, while the DOD study concluded that a person should, hypothetically, to sit on a plane for 54 consecutive hours to catch the COVID-19 from another passenger.
But the hypotheses of these studies have limitations.
Despite the urgency of aviation for airlines, reports of passenger non-compliance continue. Most airlines say that passengers who completely refuse to wear masks will not only refuse boarding, but will also jeopardize their future travel privileges. Recent press reports indicate that Delta has placed hundreds of these passengers on a no-fly list. Some passengers may still try to circumvent the rule by removing their mask for eating or drinking for a long time during the flight, and flight attendants may or may not feel they can stop them.
And although public health experts agree that airplanes have very efficient cabin-wide filtration systems that filter and circulate the air every two minutes, if someone who is unaware of COVID-19 takes off their mask for food or drink, there is still time for viral particles to reach others sitting nearby before being absorbed by the filter.
Public health experts report that comparing time on a plane to time at the grocery store is apples and oranges.
“Even if you wear a mask on both sides,” said Dr. Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious disease at Emory University School of Medicine, the duration of contact in both areas can be very different.
“If this is a long flight and you are in this situation for several hours, then you accumulate exposure over time. “So, an hour flight is 1/10 the risk of a 10 hour flight,” Wu said. “While most people do not spend more than an hour in the grocery store.”
Also, both studies analyzed only one aspect of a trip – the hazard on the aircraft. Nor did it consider the risks involved in air travel, such as getting to the airport or waiting in line. And public health experts say these activities are opportunities for exposure to COVID.
“Between arriving at the airport and getting on a plane seat, there’s a lot of interaction going on,” said Lisa Lee, a former CDC official and vice president of research and innovation at Virginia Tech.
And while Wu said he agrees that an airplane cabin is probably safer than other environments, with high COVID-19 rates in communities across the US, “there is no doubt that people fly when they are sick, whether they know it or not.”
Another data point provoked by the aviation industry was that of the 1.2 billion people who flew by 2020, only 44 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to air travel, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association, a global trading group.
However, this number only reflects case reports published in the academic literature and probably does not reflect the true picture of the number of COVID-related flight cases, experts said.
“It’s very difficult to prove if you get sick after a trip, which is exactly where you were exposed,” Wu said.
The low number could also be due to inconsistencies in systematic contact detection after a person with COVID-19 traveled on a flight. In a recent case, a woman who had been infected with the coronavirus died during a flight and fellow passengers were not informed of their report.
This may be due to the decentralized public health system implemented by the US, said Lee, a former CDC official, as contacts are tracked through state and local health services. The CDC will intervene to help find contacts only if there is a transnational trip, which is possible during a flight – but, during the pandemic, the service “was less efficiently stable than in the past,” he said. Lee.
“Let’s say there is a COVID case on a flight. The question is, who is supposed to deal with it? This state [the flight] started; This is over; The CDC? “It’s not clear,” said Lee.
Is now the time to fly?
Most airlines have implemented safety measures beyond the mask requirement, such as asking passengers to complete health questionnaires, improve airplane cleaning, reduce interaction between crew and passengers, and set up stations. plexiglass and no check-in at the service desks.
But many have also backed away from other efforts, such as the commitment to block the middle seats. United eased its social distance policy to allow mid-level vacancies between customers in late May, although there have been complaints from customers before about filling flights. American Airlines stopped blocking the middle seats in July. Other airlines plan to fill seats after Thanksgiving, with Southwest ending the practice of blocking the middle seats from December 1, and JetBlue plans to increase capacity to 85% on December 2. In January, Alaska Airlines plans to stop blocking the middle seats and JetBlue will fly at full capacity. Delta announced this week that it will continue to block the midfield until March 30.
This policy change is a result of the lack of cash from airlines, said Robert Mann, an aviation analyst. It also reflects growing demand from consumers who are increasingly comfortable traveling again, especially when celebrating holiday gatherings.
“It was easy to keep the middle seats empty when there was not much demand,” Mann said.
Now, they hope that the new COVID-era services will allay passenger fears.
The United States, the United States, Alaska, and Hawaii, among others, offer some form of COVID preflight for customers traveling to Hawaii or to certain foreign destinations that also require a negative test or quarantine upon arrival. JetBlue recently partnered with a company to offer COVID home tests that deliver fast results for travelers to Aruba.
Airlines are likely to extend their COVID pre-test options over the next two months. “This is the new dimension of airline competition,” Mann said.
But is it a new dimension of travel safety?
Emory’s Wu said there is definitely a risk of catching the Koran if you travel by plane and travelers should have a higher limit when deciding to travel home for the holidays than in previous years.
Ultimately, COVID incidence rates are rising nationally.
“I think the fewer people crowding at airports, the less traffic across the country in general, will help us control the epidemic,” Wu said. “We are worried that things will get worse with the cold weather.”
This story first appeared on November 20, 2020 on Kaiser Health News.