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Is it safer to fly or drive this summer? 5 health experts weigh in.


(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Although the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise, the nation is reopening and Americans are increasingly on the move.

Rene Knott, a morning anchor for the news outlet 5 On Your Side in St. Louis, is one of them. He knows he needs to take some time off this summer, but he isn’t quite sure what to do or how to get there.

“As we start to talk about trying to get back out again, I had this fear of being out on an airplane, a fear of being in groups,” said Knott, 56, who used to take summer road trips from Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children to visit family in Las Vegas.

“The debate now is: What do people think is the safest journey right now? Is it by car or is it by plane?” he said. He threw the question out to his more than 19,000 followers on Twitter and said that of the 100-plus responses, about 80 percent were in favor of short road trips and thought those would be safer than flying.

Knott has not made a decision — one complicating factor is that if he visits a hot spot, he might have to self-quarantine for 14 days before going back to work — but if he does take a trip, he knows it will be by car.

Knott and his Twitter followers are not alone in wondering whether flying or driving is safer for traveling during the pandemic. We spoke with five health experts to find out whether there’s a right answer to the questions so many are mulling over.

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

With more than 100,000 deaths in the United States attributed to the coronavirus, Allison Walker, a senior epidemiologist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travelers’ Health Branch, says “there’s really no such thing as safe travel.”

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 says 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 much safer choice

Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, acknowledged that the best practice 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, and part of that is trying to take some time off and maybe going somewhere other than your house,” she said. 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.”

And if you need to stop at a hotel along the way, Watson considers that a low risk. “As long as you’re not hanging out in the bar or in the common areas with lots of people, it’s a reasonable thing to do to stay somewhere while you’re on a road trip or going on vacation.”

On a plane, she said, travelers are exposed to more risks because they’re seated near strangers for a prolonged period and could potentially be grouped with more people throughout the airport. Watson said the risk can be minimized by wearing face coverings and keeping a 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.

“We don’t have a lot of evidence of transmission happening on planes, but I think the risk is there when you’re with that many people in close quarters,” Watson said.

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 regional medical director at the risk mitigation company International SOS, said he understands that people are eager to travel again.

“Everybody’s getting cabin fever; there’s no doubt about that,” he said. But if people do travel, he urged them to remember basic precautions such as the social distancing and thorough hand washing that have become staples of the past few months.

Quigley 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.

He said he would have liked to think that airlines would continue practices such as keeping middle seats empty but realizes that the practice is not sustainable; airlines have said they will have to increase capacity to break even.

For people hitting the road, 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’s important for travelers to figure out where they’ll 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.

As for where people might safely go, Quigley had no answer.

“There is no safe place,” he said. “It’s all a question of you don’t know who’s been there before you, you don’t know if and when you’re going to cross paths with somebody who’s an asymptomatic carrier.

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, is planning on flying to Miami to see his son in a few weeks.

“I suspect I’ll be able to do it very safely and I’ll be fine,” he said.

For those traveling by plane, del Rio recommends wearing an N95 face mask as well as protective eyewear. That could be goggles or a face shield. Whenever possible, travelers should practice social distancing when they’re going through security, boarding, 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 doesn’t seem 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, director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, isn’t up to date on the risks of flying. However, he notes there are different safety considerations for road trips, depending on the method.

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.

If you stop at a hotel during your road trip, Lipsitch notes, there is a risk of contracting the coronavirus by touching common surfaces in your guest room.

“While there is of course a risk of transmission through fomites (inanimate objects) that could present a potential concern from staying in a hotel, for example, I am unaware of any evidence that this is a large risk,” he said. “The relatively modest risk of transmission in households suggests to me that you can’t catch this disease easily from sitting on a sofa where a sick person was.”

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