Omicron Increases COVID-19 Risk, But Airplanes Still Safer Than Supermarkets

The highly-infectious Omicron variant has spread lightning-fast around the globe since it was first identified in southern Africa at the end of November, becoming the dominant strain within a matter of just a few weeks.

Omicron has already become so prevalent that it’s now responsible for over 70 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. And, as luck would have it, the variant emerged just in time for the massive travel surge that accompanies the end-of-year holiday season.

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Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, and especially with vaccinations and boosters widely available across the U.S., many people are determined to visit their loved ones during the 2021 holidays. But, in the face of another COVID-19 wave, should you be canceling Christmas or is it still relatively safe to fly?

It remains true that the risk of infection aboard today’s passenger aircraft—most of which are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems—is lower than in congested indoor areas you’ll encounter on the ground, like supermarkets or shopping malls.

Dr. David Powell, Medical Advisor to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Medical Advisor, the representative organization for nearly 300 worldwide air carriers, and former Chief Medical Officer at Air New Zealand spoke with Bloomberg on Tuesday about flying now that Omicron’s on the loose.

Powell said, “it’s been our observation throughout the pandemic, that airline flights have been less conducive to spread than other indoor environments. Again, we’re not saying perfect, but compared with restaurants, buses, subways, you know, nightclubs, gyms, all of those that have been studied. The likelihood of transferring to another person is less on an airplane.”

He continued, “Whatever the risk was with Delta, we would have to assume the risk would be two to three times greater with Omicron, just as we’ve seen in other environments. Whatever that low risk—we don’t know what it is—on the airplane, it must be increased by a similar amount.”

People wearing masks on a flight
People wearing masks on a flight (photo via Hispanolistic / Getty Images )

When asked whether it would be safest for travelers to forego flying altogether, Powell pointed out that an airline cabin actually offers some unique protections, namely that, “everybody stays seated, facing the same direction, there are these physical barriers that are in the way you’re sitting in a very high-flow airflow environment. It is an enclosed space, but that doesn’t shout ‘risk’ to me. An Irish pub with a fan in the corner shouts ‘risk’ to me, or a gymnasium with a whole lot of people shouting, and grunting and sweating.

When asked what precautions passengers should be taking before entering an increased-risk environment, Powell said that recommended measures remain the same. “The advice is the same, it’s just that the relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or catching a bus has increased with Omicron.”

He said that passengers should continue to wash their hands frequently, wear masks consistently, social distance and comply with controlled-boarding procedures, he said. They should also take care to avoid face-to-face interactions, common-touch surfaces, and unmasking at the same time as those around them when in-flight meals and drinks are served.

Powell said it’s wisest to follow airlines’ advice that passengers “stagger their mask-off periods a little bit”, rather than everyone unmasking to eat their meals at the same time. Still, he summarily remarked, “The greatest protection you can give yourself is to be vaccinated and boosted.”

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