The level of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infection and local control measures in the country you are leaving or flying to may affect the level of risk. Airlines take precautions, such as making passengers wear masks, hand sanitizing, spacing available seats and screening for sick passengers, though procedures vary between airlines.
However, due to limited testing and contact tracing of passengers, the risk of infection is not certain. It is difficult to determine precisely when an infection occurred (e.g. before travel, at the airport, on the flight or elsewhere).
Of the studies that have looked specifically at the transmission of COVID-19 during air travel, there is not enough high-quality evidence to support the claim that COVID-19 is spread through air travel. There are few rigorous studies, and overall the evidence is inconclusive.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) advises that flying on an airplane increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, because air travel requires close contact with other people and with frequently touched surfaces. “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours.” (CDC, Nov 2020)
The World Health Organization states that ‘Any situation in which people are in close proximity to one another for long periods of time increases the risk of transmission’.
The World Health Organization recommends that travellers who are sick should avoid travel, as should elderly people and those with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions. They recommend that those who do travel should ensure personal and hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, maintaining physical distance of at least one metre from others and use of a mask as appropriate.
Beware of claims based on a single study. Ask if there are other studies that examine the same question and ideally, a careful summary of all the relevant studies.
Don’t confuse “no evidence” or “a lack of evidence” with “no difference” or “no effect”. And don’t be fooled if someone says there is “no difference” or “no effect”.
Beware of claims that are based on before and after comparisons and when people don’t say what a treatment was compared to. Remember: Ask what the treatment was compared to and whether it was a fair comparison.
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