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Fly, drive or stay home?

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People are still conflicted about travelling. Can you stay healthy on a plane? Are road trips safe? Is one option better than the other?

New evidence shows coronavirus transmission has been very limited on planes, says an expert. Picture: Pexels

Experts debate which mode of travel is safer during the pandemic

By Natalie Compton and Hannah Sampson

Before the novel coronavirus, people typically decided whether to fly or drive to a destination based on factors such as price and travel time.

Now, months into the pandemic, the debate over whether to fly or drive has more to do with safety than plane ticket prices. People are still conflicted about travelling. Can you stay healthy on a plane? Are road trips safe? Is one option better than the other?

“There’s really no such thing as safe travel,” said Allison Walker, a senior epidemiologist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) travellers’ health branch.

“Whether you’re driving or flying, there may be health concerns because of a variety of factors. Different modes of transportation have different risks,” she said. “When you have people in close proximity and you’re not doing social distancing, if people aren’t wearing masks or people don’t have access to hand-washing, all of those things are risk factors.”

When asked whether there was a lesser of two evils, Walker said both were equally pressing, “because if you’re spreading it, someone else is getting it”. Should you weigh the risk of travel and decide on a journey nonetheless, Walker said to follow the recommended travel precautions.

“It’s about doing what you can to stay 1.8m apart, to wash your hands, to wear your face coverings,” she said. “And also just to be aware that if you or someone you’ve loved is at higher risk of severe illness, that you really want to protect yourself and others because people can get very sick.”

Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, acknowledged the best practice for avoiding coronavirus was to maintain physical distancing and avoid interacting in groups with new people.

“But it’s also important to be able to maintain your mental health,” she said. “And part of that is trying to take some time off and maybe going somewhere other than your house.” She realised anyone with a semblance of wanderlust was trying to figure out the safest way to indulge it.

Watson said that for those who were travelling, she thought driving was a “much safer” choice than flying.

“You’re only in the car by yourself or with family who you are probably in residence with anyway,” she said. “And you have minimal interactions with people when you stop to get fuel or get food, if you go through the drive-through. Those are pretty minimal risks to take.”

However, Watson said, over the past few months there had been new evidence that showed coronavirus transmission has been very limited on planes. “We think that part of the reason for that is the high level of air recirculation and filtration on planes. But still, you would be in close contact with many other people who you don’t know for prolonged periods of time, so I think it is still safer to drive.”

Should you still decide to fly, Watson said, the risk could be minimised by wearing face coverings throughout your trip and keeping a safe distance as much as possible. Ideally, travellers would be able to avoid being within 1.8m of someone for more than 15  minutes (that 15-minute time frame is based on the CDC’s practices around contact tracing), especially without a face covering. While airlines are taking measures such as requiring passengers to wear masks or not filling middle seats, keeping 1.8m away from anyone else for extended periods was likely to present a challenge.

“There are fewer flights, we’ve all seen those pictures of people kind of crammed in on a flight. That could happen, and you could be stuck sitting on a plane that is full capacity for an extended period of time.”

Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at the risk mitigation company International SOS, said he understood people were eager to travel again, but he still recommended people only travel when necessary at this time.

“By physically moving regions, you are not only exposing yourself to a larger population who may be infected, but you also run the risk of exposing a larger population should you be an asymptomatic carrier,” Quigley said.

He warned that road trips and air travel carried their own risks. “Both have their challenges, but I think the one you can control a little better is the motor vehicle as opposed to the plane,” he said.

While HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters on commercial aircraft can capture more than 99% of air impurities, which cover respiratory droplets, they were not perfect since they did not cover free viral particles, Quigley said. For people driving, Quigley recommended doing significant research and planning. He warned that even when driving, travellers would encounter all manner of hazards in the form of fuel pumps, doorknobs and other areas that see high traffic.

“I think that there’s no better time than now to really do your homework,” he said. “Where am I going, how many km/l do I get, where do I stop, do I need gloves to go into that place, where can I eat?”

He said it was important for travellers to figure out where they would stop to sleep during a long trip, find the hotels in that area and call around to ask what practices they used to mitigate coronavirus transmission.

Carlos del Rio, executive dean at Emory University School of Medicine, feelt comfortable about flying during the pandemic, and believed airlines had done enough to keep passengers safe. “I think my biggest concern flying is honestly when people start eating their snacks and taking their masks off,” he said.

For those flying, Del Rio recommended wearing an N95 mask if possible, as well as protective eyewear.

Marc Lipsitch, the director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said there was some evidence that coronavirus transmission could happen on an airplane. For road trips, he noted there were different safety considerations to keep in mind depending on how you were taking them.

“Regarding road trips, there is nothing inherently dangerous about travel with a household group in a car,” he said. “Travel by bus in particular may be a more concentrated exposure to a poorly ventilated and dense environment.”

One’s destination for a road trip was another cause of concern to Lipsitch.

“Given the heterogeneity in the epidemic across the country, there is of course the risk of going from a low-transmission to a high-transmission community and thus increasing one’s exposure,” he said.

Lipsitch no longer considered hotels or motels a significant risk, as the evidence for transmission from objects remained close to non-existent. | Washington Post

The Independent on Saturday