Do Masks Really Lower Risk of Catching COVID-19 During Flights?
As airlines are looking to bring back passengers, safety concerns have been a major topic of discussion. Airlines have implemented several measures to create a safer environment for passengers. There are new cleaning procedures, temperature checks in some instances, empty middle seats until recently at most airlines, and then obviously masks.
Now a new study shows whether wearing a mask on a flight really lowers your chances of getting infected with COVID-19. The new evidence comes mostly from Hong Kong, where health officials have done a great job at testing and tracking all passengers. So they have a good idea which passengers boarded the plane while already infected with the virus and whether they could have infected anyone else on the plane. The study focused mainly on one airline, Emirates.
Emirates introduced its mask requirement back in April. It requires passengers and crew members to wear masks as much as possible, throughout the entire flight. And, flight attendants do a good job at enforcing the rules.
David O. Freedman, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his colleagues, looked at all Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong between June 16 and July 5. During those three weeks, there were five flights with seven or more infected passengers on each flight. Yet, none of the other 1,500 to 2,000 passengers were infected. Freedman and his colleague found several other high-risk flights with no transmission, which they say would be impossible without masks.
A case from back in March, before airlines started requiring masks, shows the difference. A Vietnamese businesswoman with a sore throat and a cough boarded a flight in London. Ten hours later, she landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. She infected 15 people on the flight, including more than half of the passengers sitting with her in business class, NPR reports.
In fact, since airlines have made masks mandatory, Freedman says, scientists have not documented one superspreading event on airlines. Even though planes are a closed space with hundreds of people, they have excellent air ventilation and filtration systems. These systems remove coronavirus particles from the air about every six minutes, the U.S. Transportation Command reported last Thursday. You can only breathe the virus in if the particles pass by you before going through that ventilation system. That only happens if you’re sitting close to the person who’s sick. The risk is lower when that person wears a mask as much as possible.