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Are Masks Really Protecting Travelers From COVID-19 on Planes?

News Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Oct 21, 2020

Masks have been widely hailed as an effective preventative measure against COVID-19, but there are still skeptics who doubt their efficacy. Well, new evidence has just emerged showing that masks are indeed a game changer in reducing the spread of the coronavirus on planes.

In Hong Kong, health officials have been testing and tracking all passengers who land in the city and administering a PCR test upon arrival, followed by a mandatory 14-day quarantine. After the quarantine is over, passengers are tested again. This allows health officials to know which passengers boarded the plane while already infected with the virus, and if they infected anyone else inflight.

Infectious disease doctor David O. Freedman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has been analyzing the data, with a focus on Emirates Airlines, which requires passengers and crew to wear masks at all times. According to an NPR report and a study published in the Journal of Medicine Freedman looked at all Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong between June 16 and July 5 and discovered that Emirates had five flights with seven or more infected passengers each. Despite this, no one else on the plane caught the virus.

On another Emirates flight, 27 COVID-19 positive passengers boarded in Dubai, and only two others were infected during the eight-hour flight. In the absence of masks, that number would have been much greater.

The data collected during these studies suggests that masks do work quite effectively.

“There’s encouraging evidence from a number of flights that masking does help greatly, but it would be nice to study it better,” Freedman said. “The circumstantial evidence is, your risk is low on a plane, if there is rigid masking.”

Taking this into consideration, passengers have the greatest chance of catching the virus from people sitting directly around you — especially if they remove their mask for any reason. The risks are greater if people talk.

In addition to masks, the low rate of transmission is largely due to the sophisticated air ventilation and filtration systems, which remove particles from the air every six minutes.

While everyone should still practice social distancing, sanitize their hands, avoid touching their faces, and disinfect surfaces where possible, the new study should provide a measure of relief to travelers wary of taking to the skies.

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