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With the holiday season approaching and more employees considering air travel for work and pleasure, it’s a good time to assess related COVID-19 exposure risk.
In this blog post, we review air travel precautions and post-travel quarantine policies. First let’s take a quick look at the hard-hit aviation industry.
The chart we’ve shared at the bottom of the page shows dramatic declines in global air travel. In the U.S., you can refer to this TSA webpage to see how many passengers have gone through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. Here’s a recent five-day period comparison:
An Airlines for America® (airlines.org) Oct. 23, 2020, update found U.S. airline passenger volumes during the past week were 65 percent lower than 2019 levels, slightly below the 70 percent average weekly decline observed in recent months. The organization also reports COVID-19 has forced at least 19 airlines to restructure or cease operations since March 1.
On a more upbeat note, Airlines for America, which advocates on behalf of leading air carriers and shipping companies, cites significant investments in measures to protect the safety and well-being of passengers and employees. For example, its Fly Healthy. Fly Smart. infographic illustrates protection measures including:
During WorkCare’s Oct. 21 weekly webinar on Preventing and Managing COVID-19 in the Workplace, Dr. Anthony Harris, our Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Medical Director for Onsite Clinical Operations, cites a Sept. 25, 2020, Journal of Travel Medicine article in which peer-reviewed studies are used to compare COVID-19 mass-transmission events associated with three flights without mandatory mask policies to five flights requiring masks. On the mandatory-mask flights, 58 passengers were later confirmed to be infected, but no related transmissions were reported.
In addition to the use of masks, the researchers considered factors including origin-destination, aircraft type, seat location, flight duration, total transfers, and quarantine and testing protocols upon arrival. They concluded that “strict use of masks appears to be protective.” However, they also say that while the findings are encouraging, these comparative studies are limited in scope and do not supply definitive evidence that fliers are safe.
In short, wearing is mask is a primary prevention practice, and if you travel now in the U.S. via airplane, you will be required to wear yours in the airport and on the flight. It’s also advisable to frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, practice social distancing (6 feet) and avoid touching your nose and mouth. (Refer to the CDC’s Public Health Guidance for Potential COVID-19 Exposure Associated with International or Domestic Travel for additional recommendations.)
When evaluating the need for a post-flight quarantine, which is typically 14 days for asymptomatic personnel, protocols should not be based on air travel alone. Dr. Harris advises employers to ask questions such as:
If an employee was flying for personal reasons, you may feel uneasy about this line of questioning. However, it may be necessary to probe to determine whether there was higher than average risk of exposure while attending a family gathering in order to make a sound quarantine decision.
Dr. Harris recommends that employers review travel and quarantine policies based on “the best strategy for you to keep your folks safe and at the same time allow you to be productive in the business that you’re conducting.” Due diligence will help reveal whether you should dial down restrictions or enhance them.
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