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Trust Index: Can COVID-19 spread on airplanes?

Studies indicate transmission has happened on planes but face masks decrease the risk

ORLANDO, Fla. – Transportation Security Authority workers at Orlando International Airport screened more than 32,000 passengers on Oct. 18, according to airport officials, it was the busiest day at the airport since March 17.

Even amid the ongoing pandemic, air travel is picking up and with the holidays approaching, it could increase even more--which begs the question: Can you contract COVID-19 on a plane?

Dr. Qingyan Chen is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. His research includes infectious disease transmission in commercial airline cabins.

“I don’t think an airplane is bullet proof,” Chen said. “You have a lot of particles floating inside the cabin."

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Chen points to a study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where researchers studied a direct flight from London, England to Hanoi, Vietnam in early March.

“In-depth epidemiologic investigations strongly suggest that one symptomatic passenger transmitted COVID-19 infection during the flight to at least 12 other passengers in business class,” according to the report.

“If your trip is long, longer than two hours or so, then you have a risk if you don’t wear a mask,” Chen said.

Dr. Thomas Moore is a physicist at Rollins College. Through a process called transmissive electronic speckle pattern Interferometry, Moore created videos with the help of the college music department that show how far aerosols travel.

“I will tell you the truth, I had some doubts about masks and their efficacy for aspiration,” Moore said.

Aerosols or aspirants are tiny particles -- in our breath and in the air -- that are often smaller than 1/10 of the diameter of a strand of human hair.

One video shows how far a singers breath travels without a mask another shows how far it travels with a mask.

With a mask, the breath goes up above the singers head. Without it goes out at least a couple of feet.

“These aspirants that you really can’t control, I wasn’t so sure about masks but, I’m a believer now,” Moore said.

Last week United Airlines released a study conducted with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The company says they performed 300 tests in about six months, releasing particles on board a plane with mannequins breathing in and out.

The study concluded COVID-19 exposure is quote “non-existent” if passengers are seated and wearing masks.

Not all researchers are ready to go that far. Most agree masks significantly lower the risk.

But Dr. Ali Mokdad with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation added a caveat.

“It doesn’t mean that if someone has COVID-19 on the plane, and they sit next to you, there is not 100% chance this person can not pass COVID-19 to someone else even if they are wearing a mask,” Mokdad said.

Based on multiple interviews and studies, we give, “Can you contract Covid-19 on an airplane?” Be Careful on the Trust Index.

Most, if not all, airlines are requiring masks now. Chen believes passengers should go a step further and even bring their own wipes to wipe down the tray table and arm rests on a plane.

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