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Coronavirus May Spread in Airplanes, New Study Finds

Flying the friendly skies may not be as safe as previously believed. 

Since the start of the pandemic, experts have been on the fence about the potential spread of the virus on the airplane. While there has been no evidence of outbreaks tied to the travel vessels, due to the difficulty of social distancing on a crowded flight, it seems like infection is a distinct possibility. The CDC has even maintained that more dangerous than a flight itself, is spending time in an airport. However, according to a new study, the virus can—and has—spread on an airplane. 

A Hotel Manager Infected Passengers

In a new report published in JAMA Network Open, German researchers from the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University in Frankfurt claim to have found proof that the virus spread on a 4 hour flight in March, when two airline passengers fell ill after their trip. According to their findings, the outbreak started with an infected hotel manager, who came into contact with 24 travelers before testing positive for the virus. Prior to being tested, they then boarded a flight of 102 passengers from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt. Due to the fact that it was early in the pandemic, nobody was wearing a mask on the nearly 5 hour flight. 

All 24 were subsequently tested for coronavirus, and the majority of the others on the flight were also tested—seven of the 24 tested positive for the virus. According to their research, four of them were symptomatic while on the flight, two were presymptomatic and one remained asymptomatic. 

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"We discovered 2 likely SARS-CoV-2 transmissions on this flight, with seven index cases," the researchers wrote. The two people who may have been infected on the flight were sitting at the back of the plane, directly across the aisle from the seven infected passengers seated in a cluster," they wrote. 

"These transmissions may have also occurred before or after the flight."

Masks May Have Reduced Risks Further

While it's unclear if these individuals were responsible for spreading the virus to other passengers on the plane, one reported testing positive just four days after the flight. 

"The airflow in the cabin from the ceiling to the floor and from the front to the rear may have been associated with a reduced transmission rate," the researchers wrote. "It could be speculated that the rate may have been reduced further had the passengers worn masks."

Per the CDC, air travel isn't 100% safe. However, they maintain that the chance of catching coronavirus in the air is quite slim. 

"Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes," they write on their website. "However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19."

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Mask up, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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