This is when you are more likely to contract COVID-19 on airplanes

• Recent research found there’s a 59% higher risk of viral transmission during one-hour meal times when everyone’s masks are off.
• Health experts are calling for airlines to offer staggered meal service.
• Some airlines are calling for COVID testing 72 hours before flights.

Remember all the fear that came with flying when the COVID-19 pandemic was just emerging? Well, now there’s data confirming some of our worries about the risk of COVID-19 transmission on airplanes.

Recent research found that there’s a 59% higher risk of viral transmissions during one-hour meal times on 12-hour trips compared to masking up for the duration of an entire flight.

The study comes from researchers at the University of Greenwich in London (h/t WSJ). They determined that if all passengers wore masks entirely for the 12-hour flight, infection probability would decrease a bit depending on which mask you wear — 73% for high-efficiency masks and 32% for low-efficiency masks.

While wearing masks has been an issue for some passengers aboard flights as seen in viral videos, the real threat is when food and beverages are offered at the same time. During meal service, each passenger will have the opportunity to eat and that can increase the possible spread even as the threat of viral spread abroad flights is little.

Researchers in the study, published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, called on airlines to consider staggered meal service times.

If it is necessary to provide a meal service, airlines should keep the mealtime to a minimum and consider alternating the meal service so that only half the passengers (that are non-neighboring) within a seat row are fed at any one time. In this way, the passengers either side of the susceptible passenger currently being fed are wearing masks, thus reducing the impact on the maximum infection probability associated with the passenger adjacent to the index passenger. Clearly, this will increase the time required for the meal service but will reduce the maximum infection probability.

Test before boarding

Another method that could eliminate the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 on a flight is if airlines require passengers to show a negative test before takeoff.

A separate study by Delta Air Lines, Mayo Clinic and the Georgia Department of Health found that out of nearly 10,000 passengers that tested negatives 72 hours before flying between the U.S. and Italy, only five tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We are going to live with COVID-19 variants for some time. This real-world data – not simulation models – is what governments around the world can use as a blueprint for requiring vaccinations and testing instead of quarantines to re-open borders for international travel,” Dr. Henry Ting, Delta’s Chief Health Officer, said in a press release “Air travel risk varies depending on case rates and vaccination rates at the origin and destination, masking and other factors. But the data collected from this study show that the routine use of a single molecular test within 72 hours before international travel for unvaccinated individuals significantly mitigates the risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission during airline travel.”

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