Harvard team: Covid risk on planes is lower than grocery stores

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Plane cabin during pandemic
A research team from Harvard examined Covid-19 transmission rates on airplanes. Photo Credit: Beautiful Landscape/Shutterstock.com

The risk of Covid-19 transmission on airplanes is lower than the transmission risk in other common settings such as grocery stores and indoor restaurants, according to an analysis by Harvard University's Aviation Public Health Initiative.

The Harvard research team reached its finding by doing an assessment of existing research on Covid-19 as it applies to aviation and by examining modelings of aircraft transmission that have been undertaken by governments and the aviation industry. Researchers said they combined the assessment with their own modeling.

"Our teams found that, together with their high-performing ventilation systems, the actions that airlines put in place, including mandatory use of masks, significantly reduce the risk of viral transmission aboard an airplane," said the initiative's co-director, Leonard Marcus.

The report, released Tuesday, is the first of two that Harvard will release related to the safety of air travel. The Aviation Public Health Initiative is a project of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The research is funded by air transport industry stakeholders, including the trade group Airlines for America.

Groups have been attempting to determine how likely it is that air passengers will spread Covid. The findings from the Harvard group mirrored a recent report from the U.S. Department of Defense, which determined that virus spread is "minimal."

The Harvard team emphasized that along with the hospital grade filters on most commercial aircraft, layered measures including masks, social distancing during boarding and health declarations are key to making flying safe. The researchers also recommended that airlines make sure proper ventilation is maintained throughout the boarding and deplaning process and that airlines operate supplemental, ground-based ventilations systems.

Marcus also cautioned that an individual's decision to engage in flying or other activities must be balanced by personal health considerations.

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