Bjorn’s Corner: Do I get COVID in airline cabins? Part 7. Effects of prevention.

By Bjorn Fehrm

June 19, 2020, ©. Leeham News: In our Corner series about flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at opening up traveling and how re-emerging infection clusters can be handled.

With a four-month pandemic history, several studies now detail what effects different prevention actions have. Once the general spreading of the virus is under control in a country, authorities can then use these tools to engage in point actions rather than general lockdowns.

Figure 1. The EU travel app. Source: European Union.

Opening up traveling and how to handle re-emerging virus clusters

I continue to base data on the NDR podcasts with Professor Drosten, the lead virologist of Berliner Charite’, the top German research hospital. I do it because he penetrates and discusses the latest worldwide study results in an easy to understand and thoughtful way.

But first, traveling is picking up ahead of holidays in the northern hemisphere. My inbox is full of airlines detailing their destinations for the summer and their actions against COVID-19. The will to travel is coming back evidenced by booking rates for the next months.

Authorities are reducing travel restrictions in steps based on how controlled their COVID situation is. The European Union yesterday presented an app detailing the conditions for travel to countries in the union. Figure 1 shows the phone app.

Here an example from the Web app (Figure 2) where I want to know the conditions for a trip to Italy.

Figure 2. The EU Web app is telling me about travel conditions for a trip to Italy. Source: European Union.

The reduction in restrictions is possible when virus transmissions levels are under control in the origin and destination countries.

With the reduction of restrictions, the risk of increased transmissions is there. Different from the start of the pandemic, there are now studies that detail the effects of prevention actions:

  • The stopping of large gatherings almost halved the transmission rate of COVID-19.
  • The closing of schools virtually halved the rate again.
  • And social distancing brought another halving of the transmission rate.

The NDR podcasts detail the studies with more exact conditions of transmission values, as these are tied to specific demographics and how the preventions were done.

New studies also add to the knowledge of what mask-wearing brings. A recent study compared a town in Germany, Jena, that made masks wearing compulsory by April 6, whereas other parts of Germany and Denmark followed 20 days later.

A detailed study compared Jena with equivalent areas in Germany and Denmark, with corrections for other influences. It found the Jena death rate for people over 60 reduced with 50%, whereas overall, it reduced by 23%.

The availability of data for prevention actions enables authorities to crack down on emerging COVID clusters in targeted activities, once they have lowered the level of transmission in their area so the clusters stand out.

Several countries now introduce tracking apps to achieve the speed necessary to make such strategies efficient. If a resurgence of the virus can be controlled with targeted actions, a return to countrywide general lockdowns is no longer necessary.

Professor Drosten says it’s important we establish such tactics and tools now when the summer relieves the pressure of the pandemic, so the re-introduction of general lockdowns are no longer necessary when flu season begins in the autumn.

22 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Do I get COVID in airline cabins? Part 7. Effects of prevention.

  1. You get COVID in airline cabins.

    Do not travel if you are afraid to get COVID.

    • You CAN get covid in many different ways, the focus on how you CAN get covid is leading to some ridiculous things: people washing their groceries, expensive deep cleaning of offices/schools, etc. The focus should be on the chance of contraction, people are inherently bad in interpretting chance. If there are millions of people than there will always be examples of the chance (no matter how small) occurring. Yes people will get covid in airlines, but is that chance high enough to affect your decision making? People buy lottery tickets, not realizing they have a higher chance of dying between the moment of purchase and the moment of draw, than actually winning the darn jackpot.

      • You CAN get covid in many different ways.
        It is correct. You can get covid in airport gates, in airport duty free zone, at bars in airports in and so on. Do not travel if you are afraid to get COVID.

        • “afraid” is a completly useless word when analyzing physical reality and risk. “afraid” is about mental well being.

  2. When the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, wow, was there a ton of mis-information. As they learn more about Covid, I’ve gotten to the point where I would get on a airplane if everyone wore masks and the middle seat was empty. That’s if they follow a few more of the established protocols.

  3. Some research coming out now that new clusters of COVID in countries that are easing restrictions, are not associated with public transportation. That had been an expected hotspot, but so far at least, does not appear to have developed.

    The thinking is the reason might be high ventilation rates, due to forced air circulation as well as frequent opening and closing of doors. This ventilation rate is similar to what Bjorn has pointed out for commercial aircraft. So that is another factor in support of his analysis.

    Also some suggestions by the HVAC community now that the percentage of outside air be increased in building air circulation systems, to achieve a similar effect. That would use more energy but may be safer from the perspective of COVID.

    In the schools where I consult, the minimum requirement for classroom ventilation is 10% to 15% outside air. I’ve boosted that to 20% to 25% during occupied hours now. It can drop back to zero when unoccupied. It will cost more but administration and faculty were all for it.

    • Thanks, Rob

      the more data points we can collect the better, from different sectors. In the last month, perhaps six weeks, research has confirmed poor ventilation in combination with people density as the major spreading conditions. Add high voices to this as an amplifier.

      • Thanks Bjorn. It may be this is also the factor in not seeing COVID clusters develop among outdoor protests, but rather from indoor activities.

        That points to sharing the same air in close quarters without adequate ventilation. The donor breathes it out and the recipient breathes it in. That can transfer a sufficient viral load for infection.

        Masks reduce that load, even if the air is shared. Two masks (donor and recipient) reduce it further as the air is filtered twice. As you mentioned, speaking loudly will increase the load getting through the donor mask.

        That may be encouraging news for outdoor sports fans, but bad news for indoor sports. Although even outdoor sports may require social distancing (venues at 50%), at least initially.

    • So far, the airborne hypothesis has not been borne out. The study that started this notion was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. A special atomizer in a small room was utilized. Furthermore, what was detetected was the virus RNA, not the living virus. A crude anology is that scientist can detect cocaine in the Thames river. Maintaining 2 metres seperation and not touching one’s face is sufficient to not be infected with COVID-19.

      • Not sure about the NEJM study, but those published over the last few weeks have steady narrowed the focus to airborne transmission, and identified face masks as the most effective mitigation measure. Here is one example:

        Also there is evidence that the virus does not live long in sunlight, which is another potential reason why outdoor events would have less risk than indoor:

        The observed data are also lining up with both of these findings, in terms of the clusters and outbreaks that occur, and the circumstances surrounding them.

        • Rob, beware that ‘airborne transmission’ has two different mechanisms:
          – Droplets, which fall out ot the air quickly, hence the 2-metre practice, as Bjorn explained in earlier article (though he showed a simulation which I am wary of).
          – Mist, AFAIK not considered to be a significant transmission mechanism.
          I’ve warmed up much to masks to stop droplets in both directions, cheap ones don’t stop mist, hopefully N95s will become easier to purchase by individuals..

          Touching common surfaces is believed to be a key transmission method, for example health authorities in Alberta think a key transmission path in a medical convention was serving spoons (e.g. especially in buffet serving, each individual handles a big spoon that the next person then picks up).

          Children are a known transmission path for the perennially killing corona virus INFLUENZA, which does harm some young children whereas COVID-19 does not. Daycare facilities will be the schools to watch, as those children may be harder to isolate. (A single data point of interest: in the ecoli outbreak in the Seattle area the oung child who died had not eaten food from the offending restaurant, but a classmate had.)

          Leadership is needed, lacking in the Seattle area restaurant that continued to not cook hamburgers properly despite the scare and coaching by health authorities – that hurt people bad. Such will drive a store out of business, from loss of sales or closure by the company or franchisor.

  4. We have known for decades that aircraft air is recirculated and, due to cheaping out, airlines do not add UV and electro-static devices that kill airborne viruses and bacteria. I say cheaping out because the devices would likely run about $8K to install. The one on our home (3200sqft) HVAC system cost $1200 installed.

    Oh, you say; “Airlines would skip such an important safety feature for the price of a few tickets?” Back when I worked at FAA, and there was an epidemic of hijackings, we issued a rule requiring airlines to install hardened locked doors to cockpit cabins to prevent entry with a simple kick. Airlines complained about the cost and insisted the Federal government pay for the doors. That did not happen, but it demonstrates that airlines about greed, which is why they now shoehorn you into your ever-shrinking seat on the plan.

    • How do you view the inclusion of HEPA filters that filter out 99.9% of all germs, including COVID-19 which is a rather big virus, in the recirculation loop just before the mixer in the ECS?

  5. This is aviation industry denial. People are getting infected somehow and that somehow includes being in close proximity to lots of other people and just about everything involved in mass transit and long distance travel.
    Blood type is emerging as a significant factor, people who are A or B type need to factor this in.

    • It seems that ‘social distancing’, the 6 foot rule, is much credited with slowing down or delaying transmission

      In US and elsewhere, not everywhere

      In US raising lockdown includes demands to keep respect for this rule, so no churches, sports : restaurants have to re configure, walking in the street ditto

      Yet no, as far I know, serious discussion of imposition of this rule where it counts – factories, mass transit, airplanes, apartments, houses

      And even so, as everyone knows, this rule is not respected on beaches in parks during demonstrations and/or riots, is likely increasingly less to be respected as panick fades and familiarity breeds contempt

      Much the same attitude with masks, although masks do not require re building infra structure or your home

      Why not use better filters in planes and everywhere? But why not discuss social distancing?

      Is this a concept which can be considered, if so how?

      • “Why not use better filters in planes and everywhere? But why not discuss social distancing?
        Is this a concept which can be considered, if so how?”

        No solution that requires personal action and/or self discipline will find acceptance within a significant part of the population.
        “Burgers and Coke from McD made me fat,
        not my lack of properly regulating/limiting my food intake” 🙂

        • @uwe

          I would not disagree that autonomous take up of 6 feet between everyone is unlikely to be spontaneous, it could be regarded as un natural

          But such a rule has so far enjoyed acceptance and enforcement amongst various authorities, US and Europe

          It appears this rule has found severe application in common social activities parks streets restaurants churches, to the extent of shutting down many such, but is absent where some investment in infrastructure is required

          My question was whether this was going to be taken up in any discussion or airtravel – to be enforced in planes, or indeed in areas such as control towers, which, I guess, would have to be re designed and rebuilt

          By which it may be seen that social distancing is not taken seriously as a concept to be applied where money matters, factories, mass transit, homes, but only in areas regarded as in essential, communal generally cheap or free social activity

          • I work at a factory, we have been socially distanced since late March. Coronavirus is still a temporary state of being, cost/benefit analyses must be done. This isn’t Ebola or cancer, the death rate if contracted is low and falling daily, and as this very insightful series has pointed out there are many effective ways to reduce risks. Mandating entire infrastructures be uprooted would only serve to make the prices of those goods or services go up to the point many could not afford them. Cut more than middle seats on planes? Now you’re doubling or tripling the cost, and airlines aren’t a charity. That just means travel would be out of reach of many more people. If people don’t feel safe doing something they will vote with their feet and change will come. Since it hasn’t, the changes implemented strike a balance that those people have found reasonable. Using your logic that plane should never leave the ground because there’s a non-zero chance it could crash.

          • @zoomzoom

            I was questioning why social distancing is required indeed mandatory in some situations and not in others – and asking if anything but cost controlled such choice : cost seems a poor substitute for care when it comes to health

            So far distancing has not been left up to the people to decide if they wish or do not wish

            The cost benefit analysis is inoperable if there is one rule in one situation and another in another, as there is no overall benefit: partial distancing is like partial quarantine, it may work a little but there is no way of measuring how much

            Your factory may have been able to distance – consider what small % worldwide will be able to do so

            Using your logic there’s a non zero risk in every activity – you should look at risk from the other way round

  6. It’s not actually about your personal risk, the state will find it very difficult to prevent people from committing suicide. Loads of people went skiing in Europe when they really shouldn’t have done and spread death around the continent. Air travel has to be reasonably safe for everyone or it will just get shut down again.

  7. EU is looking at how to reopen to tourist travel. Initial criteria being tossed around are below 16 infections per 100,000 in the source country, travel permitted. Above 20, still banned.

    It’s going to be tricky to navigate this issue for large countries with different internal rates, like the US Or as things shift on the ground during removal of lockdowns in individual countries.

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