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Harvard Study: Face Mask Usage on Aircraft Helps Control COVID-19 Spread


A new study by Harvard University says face coverings are an “important line of protection” against the spread of COVID-19 on aircraft. Research from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health calls the use of masks covering the nose and mouth “critically important” to preventing new novel Coronavirus infections.

New research from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health says face coverings are a critical part of preventing the spread of COVID-19 aboard aircraft. In a published paper, the institution says using a face mask to cover the nose and mouth is key to keeping flyers healthy during their travels.

“The Use of Face Masks is Critically Important Throughout the Air Travel Process”

The latest look into how the virus is spread focused on aerosol droplets flying through the air. Although airlines say their cabins refresh the air every three to five minutes through HEPA filters, the study shows a novel Coronavirus infection can come from aerosols as small as five micrometers, and droplets greater than five micrometers in diameter.

When aboard an aircraft, it is incredibly difficult to mandate social distancing, making the chance of contracting COVID-19 from droplets or aerosols higher – especially if an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carrier is on board coughing or sneezing. As a result, the best non-pharmaceutical intervention a flyer can use is a covering of the nose and mouth from the moment they arrive at the airport, to the moment they leave the terminal.

“The use of face masks is critically important throughout the air travel process,” the study reads, “because it diminishes the release of infectious particles into the environment. Reducing the transmission from the source of infection, or ‘source control,’ provides an important layer of protection against COVID-19 for air travelers.”

But the use of face masks shouldn’t only be used as a preventative measure from spreading the virus. According to Harvard, a face mask made of common household items (like silk, cotton and linen) can be up to 83 percent effective in filtering aerosolized bacteria particles of one micrometer, and up to 72 percent effective in filtering out aerosolized particles containing 0.02 micrometers of viruses.

“Universal use is key,” the study stresses. “A recent modeling suggests that the universal use of surgical masks in the setting of ventilation rates of aircraft may reduce infection risk from respiratory particles to less than one percent.”

Despite the Science, Airline Face Mask Non-Compliance Ban List Grows

The Harvard study is the latest to suggest that flyers who wear a face covering and practice social distancing are at a significantly lower risk of catching COVID-19. A pre-print thesis written by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor suggests with middle seats unused, the chance of a novel Coronavirus infection from a flight is 1-in-7,700.

Although the evidence is overwhelming, airlines still report there is some difficulty in getting flyers to adhere to mandatory face mask policies. As of early September 2020, the U.S.-based airlines say they have banned over 700 flyers for non-compliance with face covering rules.

Enigma368 September 29, 2020

This study seems thin at first glance. The evidence in general for masks, while growing, is not incontrovertible. But really, for all those armchair experts arguing about how the science is wrong on masks, seriously who cares. If the worst thing to come out of this COVID situation is that we had a wear a thin piece of fabric over our faces during a pandemic and it turns out it did nothing, then really who gives a f***. I swear to God, there could be an asteroid about to hit the earth and it could be determined beyond doubt that wearing a mask would save your life, and there will still be people arguing - with no real background on the subject - about the size of droplets and whatever other nonsense they just read in the latest copy of conspiracy magazine weekly.

SCtime September 25, 2020

Perhaps the title of the article skews who reads it. For sure, the site skews to those with more money, both income and wealth and likely US-based. In that context, the comments above are most concerning for someone contemplating travel. To me it reads that it's quite likely there are a significant percentage of those who travel frequently by air who would not choose to wear a mask and in fact won't wear a mask if given a choice. Considering the potential personal downsides and the potential upsides for self and public, I find the responses herein(about half of which sound like they wouldn't wear a mask if given any choice) most concerning and why I will actively avoid flying until I'm vaccinated (with at least a 50% effective vaccine) which may mean no flying until Q2 or 3. And generally, I'm a white-collar a regular-times frequent air-traveller, much younger than 65 without preexisting conditions, and an American and the vociferous resistance of so many Americans to entertain even slight inconvenience for the vast potential benefit to preventing another loss of life is a head scratcher to me. If I contract covid, the likelihood is I would be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and so would be very likely to pass it along to someone else, continuing a chain of transmission. How could I live with myself knowing I could have slightly inconvenienced myself my taking better precautions (distance, mask, handwash) and saved a life by breaking the chain of transmission? Could you live with yourself knowing that?

Dieuwer September 25, 2020

Conmon sense. Does it still exist?

toltecs September 25, 2020

@sfoeuroflyer "Aerosols" are not individual virus particles. In this context, "aerosols" are small droplets containing the virus. They are differentiated from "droplets" based on size. Aerosols are smaller than droplets. https://www.uchealth.org/today/covid-19-and-airborne-aerosols-what-you-need-to-know/ There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that masks help slow the spread of covid. Why do you think people in hospitals have been wearing masks for decades? It's not valid to compare the size of the Covid virus to the pores in any mask material because the virus is not flying around the air dry. The virus is transmitted in aerosols and droplets. Finally, I think I'll trust the work of scientists at Harvard and other research institutions over your error-filled "smell test."

ajnaro September 25, 2020

I will be wearing a mask. I'm not totally convinced by the reports of the science involved, but I don't want to take the risk of harming my fellow passengers health.