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Is it safer to fly or drive during the pandemic? 5 health experts weigh in.


illustration for driving vs flying story (iStock/Washington Post illustration)

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

Now, months into the pandemic, the debate over flying vs. driving has more to do with safety than plane ticket prices. Americans are still conflicted about traveling while coronavirus cases continue to spike in certain regions.

Can you stay healthy on a plane? Are road trips safe? Is one option better than the other? We spoke with five health experts to get their thoughts on the travel questions so many are mulling over.

A CDC epidemiologist says there is ‘no such thing as safe travel’

With more than 200,000 deaths in the United States attributed to the coronavirus, “there’s really no such thing as safe travel,” said Allison Walker, a senior epidemiologist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travelers’ 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 that both are 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 precautions outlined on the CDC travel website.

“It’s about doing what you can to stay six feet 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.”

A senior Johns Hopkins scholar thinks driving is a safer choice

Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, acknowledged that the best practice for avoiding coronavirus is to keep social 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.” And she realizes that anyone with a semblance of wanderlust is trying to figure out the safest way to indulge it.

Watson said that for those who are traveling, she thinks driving is 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 gas 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 has been new evidence that shows coronavirus transmission has been very limited on planes themselves.

“We think that part of the reason for that is the high level of air re-circulation and filtration on airplanes,” she said. “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 can be minimized by wearing face coverings throughout your trip and keeping a safe distance as much as possible. Ideally, travelers would be able to avoid being within six feet 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 six feet away from anyone else for extended periods is likely to present a challenge.

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

A risk mitigation specialist thinks travelers can control the challenges of a road trip

Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at the risk mitigation company International SOS, said he understands that people are eager to travel again, but he still recommends 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 carry their own risks.

“Both of them have their challenges, but I think the one you can control a little better is the motor vehicle as opposed to the airplane,” he said.

While HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters on commercial aircrafts can capture over 99 percent of air impurities, which cover respiratory droplets, they are not perfect since they do not cover free viral particles, Quigley said.

For people traveling by car, Quigley recommends doing significant research and planning. He warned that even when driving, travelers will encounter all manner of hazards in the form of gas 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 miles per gallon do I get, where do I stop, do I need gloves to go into that place, where can I eat?”

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

The executive dean at Emory University School of Medicine advises gearing up for a trip by plane

Carlos del Rio, executive dean at Emory University School of Medicine, feels comfortable about flying during the pandemic, and he believes airlines have 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 traveling by plane, del Rio recommends wearing an N95 face mask if possible, as well as protective eyewear.

“I’ve been wearing a face shield or goggles, any of the two,” he said, recommending that passengers should be particularly mindful about their PPE during the more dangerous parts of flying — boarding and deplaning. Whenever possible, travelers should practice social distancing when they’re going through security, boarding and deplaning, and using airport services and facilities.

“Also carry hand sanitizer and [disinfecting wipes],” del Rio said. “But planes lately, I’ve been reading, have been fairly clean, so I’m not that worried about that.”

Del Rio thinks the coronavirus will plague the country for much longer, and while the safest option for people is to not leave their homes, that does not seem like a realistic way to live in the long term.

“I think we need to start thinking about how we’re going to survive, how we are going to live with this virus, and get back to the new reality in which we need to wear a mask, wear a face shield, wash your hands and stay safe,” del Rio said.

The director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics is concerned with the destination

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

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

One’s destination for a road trip is 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 considers hotels or motels a significant risk, as the evidence for transmission from objects remains close to nonexistent.

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