In the European Union, the UK and other corners of the globe, officials are currently considering ways to restart international travel this summer.When that occurs, cinch up your seat belt — traveler numbers will soar.The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently eased its domestic and international travel guidance for vaccinated people, stating that travelers who are fully vaccinated “can travel safely within the United States” but noted agreater risk for international travel.However, the agency is still discouraging nonessential travel due to rising numbers of Covid-19 infections. Driven by extremely contagious variants that have invaded all 50 states, the virus is currently hitting healthier 30- to 50-year-olds hard.Globally, Covid-19 cases climbed for the sixth consecutive week as of April 6, according to World Health Organization statistics, with over 4 million new cases and 71,000 deaths.Is it truly safe to travel by air right now, even if you’re fully vaccinated?
Travelers arrive for flights at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on March 16, 2021. US airports are seeing pandemic-era record numbers of passengers.Scott Olson/Getty Images
Case count, masks and ventilation are key
“There are three factors to consider,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who studies the airborne transmission of Covid-19.”How prevalent is the virus in the population? If it’s highly prevalent, then there’s a good chance that someone who is infected is going to be on a plane,” Marr said.Why does that matter if you’re vaccinated? “We’re still learning how effective the vaccines are against variants of the virus,” the CDC said recently, as well as “how long COVID-19 vaccines can protect people.”In addition, real world studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines show they are only 90% protective against the coronavirus, not 95% as reported in clinical trials. Translated into reality, that means for every million fully vaccinated people who fly, some 100,000 could still become infected.”Is everyone masked? That’s also very important,” said Marr, who is world renowned for her 2011 discovery that influenza can hover in air for an hour via respiratory microscopic droplets called aerosols.
Wearing a mask onboard is still important for both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers.Michael Loccisano/Getty Images”Vaccinated people could potentially still get COVID-19 and spread it to others,” according to the CDC, as respiratory droplets fall onto surfaces or float in the air. “We’re still learning how well COVID-19 vaccines keep people from spreading the disease,” the agency added.Early in the pandemic, according to a CDC investigation, an unmasked passenger with no symptoms infected 12 fellow business class travelers, two people seated in economy and one crew member on a 10-hour international flight.Last summer, 13 asymptomatic people on an international flight into Ireland infected another 46 people in six regions of the country, despite some use of masks on the plane. And in September, nine people tested positive after a flight from India to New Zealand, despite the fact that masks were mandatory on the plane.
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