A couple of months ago I wrote that it’s ok for some people to consider traveling again. That’s mostly limited to domestic trips though you can visit much the Caribbean, the Maldives, and a handful of other international destinations as well.
If you’re older, and especially with confounding conditions, it makes sense to take extra precautions at least until we see better treatments for COVID-19 (probably fall) or a vaccine (2021).
At the end of March I wrote that travel isn’t as risky as many people think it is. There was tremendous backlash, but it’s proven to be correct: while clusters of people with the virus have traveled on planes, there haven’t been COVID-19 case clusters tied to virus spread on planes.
We need to stop acting like it’s February or March, when we didn’t know much about spread of the virus. As the CDC says, “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” Not everything is equal risk, for instance we now know that,
- Superspreaders are responsible for much of the cases, not as much as with SARS or MERS, but it’s still 10%-20% of people causing around 80% of infections. This may be a combination of the people themselves (viral load and emission of respiratory droplets) and their behaviors (coming into contact with more people, close contact when they do). Limiting superspreader events is key to keeping the virus under control.
- It spreads far more through respiratory droplets, and perhaps becomes aerosolized, than from surfaces. A lot of our cleaning regimens probably have relatively low return, though I continue to do them myself. I want enhanced airline and hotel cleaning to continue even after the pandemic.
- Children can get the virus but seem not to spread it very much. Kids usually get it at home, and don’t spread it to other kids in schools. See for instance here, here, here, here, here I could go on. Kids don’t have the same ACE-2 receptors in their lungs yet that the virus attaches to, and tend to have lower viral loads. I don’t worry about risk to my daughter, nor about the likelihood that she gets me very sick.
To manage the impact of the virus we want to limit large gatherings, especially prolonged indoor gatherings. Bars, gyms, and office buildings worry me. I’m not going to be worried about sending my two year old daughter to school.
I don’t love hotels where air circulates between rooms, but planes don’t worry me because we just haven’t seen spread on planes. (My concern about hotels is a belief I don’t have much evidence for, beyond residential case clusters in Hong Kong.)
People come on flights sick, or they develop symptoms after travel, but the plane itself doesn’t appear to be a vector of spread. Wear a mask, HEPA air filtration helps, I’d avoid small (e.g. 50 seat) regional jets that may not have the same air filtration.
Japan took almost a Sweden-like approach with less testing, but people wore masks and clamped down on the virus. Wear your masks and agitate for more access to better masks, it’s an abomination that by now there aren’t good medical and respirator masks available to the public at large, with plenty for health care providers.
And of course what you do when you travel matters a lot. If you’re spending time at indoor events with lots of people for long periods of time, is that travel that’s a risk or your own behavior?
Now, where you go matters. I’d choose someplace where the virus isn’t spreading as much as where you’re coming from. Americans want to go to Europe, Europeans shouldn’t be coming to the U.S. Restrictions on non-U.S. residents entering the country if they’ve been to Europe and China are dumb at this point.
Stay home if you have been exposed to someone with the virus, if you have any symptoms yourself, or if you’re in an especially at-risk group. Stay home if your city is experiencing a significant outbreak, if you have the virus and don’t realize it you probably won’t spread it on the plane but you might spread it while you’re out and about (whether you’re at home or in another city).
As the virus keeps spreading in the United States we need to avoid risky activities, while continuing to engage in less risky ones. What we know, after several months, is that air travel seems to be among the less risky ones.
Despite that business travel isn’t going to come back but leisure travel certainly can. Just know your bigger risks are in the airport, and at security checkpoints, than in the air. For most of us, though, we don’t need to fear air travel.
The biggest reason not to fly isn’t about flying, it’s about getting stuck wherever you go. If you do contract the virus while you’re traveling you’ll need to stay put and quarantine which can be costly and inconvenient, not to mention that quality of medical care in some destinations may be more top of mind than usual.