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Flying as safely as possible amid global pandemic
BATON ROUGE- The coronavirus outbreak kept many from traveling this summer as travel restrictions tightened and social distancing measures increased. An epidemiologist and exposure scientist break down the experience and explain how you can travel safely.
The primary concern with flying, or traveling by bus or train, is sitting within six feet of an infected person. Risk of exposure is determined by your duration of time exposed and the amount of virus-contaminated droplets in the air.
A secondary concern is contact with contaminated surfaces. Sharing an armrest, restroom handle, seat tray, or other items, the virus can survive for hours, though it degrades over time. By touching an infected surface, the risk of infection spikes as you touch your face.
While there is no way to ensure air travel is 100% safe, experts say there are plenty of ways to make it safer.
Occupational health experts call the decision making the 'hierarchy of controls.' The approach does two things. It focuses on strategies to control exposures close to the source and it minimizes how much you have to rely on individual human behavior to control exposure.
In addition to avoiding infected people or surfaces, it is important to remember that you may be infectious as well.
The best way to control exposure is to eliminate the hazard. If the trip is not necessary, you may want to eliminate travel or find safer ways to get to your destination. If you are healthy and those you visit are healthy, think about ways to substitute the hazard. Is it possible to drive? This would allow you to have more control over minimizing your exposures, particularly if the distance is less than a day of travel.
If you choose to fly, some airlines have altered seating and boarding policies to minimize the spread of COVID. Some are minimizing capacity and spacing passengers, others are boarding from the back of the plane. Some airlines have been criticized for filling their planes to capacity, and have since allowed customers to cancel their flights if the flight goes over 70% seating capacity.
I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days? Every seat full on this 737 pic.twitter.com/rqWeoIUPqL— Ethan Weiss (@ethanjweiss) May 9, 2020
Federal and state guidelines are changing constantly, so it is important to research the most recent guidance from government agencies, airlines, and airports you will be using before booking your trip.
Experts advise travelers to book shorter flights, even if that means using multiple planes to get to your destination. CNN reports, "This will decrease the likelihood of having to use the lavatory and the duration of exposure to an infectious person on the plane."
When choosing your seat on the airbus, health officials advise a window sear if possible. Having a wall on one side of you will reduce the number of people you are exposed to during the flight in half, considering the six-foot radius circle.
Airlines will have engineering controls that are designed to isolate hazards, CNN reports. These include ventilation systems, on-board barriers, and electrostatic disinfectant sprays on flights. When these ventilation systems are operating, planes have a high ratio of outside fresh air to recirculated air, which is about 10 times higher than most commercial buildings. Most planes' ventilation systems are equipped with HEPA filters, which are at least 99.9% effective at removing particles that are over .3 microns in diameter, according to CNN.
You will come into contact with many surfaces from shuttle to seat. To minimize the risk of exposure, health officials recommend the following:
- Bring hand wipes to disinfect surfaces (Seatbelt, armrests, seat tray)
- Plastic zip bags for personal items that others may handle (ID, passport)
- Wash hands or sanitize as often as possible
- Once seated, stay put
- Wear a mask. (N95 if possible, others can provide protection) The face-covering should be tested to make sure you have a good fit.
- Do not depend on gloves as that can lead to a false sense of security and have been associated with reduced hand hygiene practices.
- If traveling with children, it may be difficult to get them to wear a mask. Children under 2 should not wear a mask
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