Philbrick: Public transportation proves safe — if precautions are followed
Mineta San Jose International Airport is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of SJC.

As this challenging year draws to a close, many Americans are looking forward to the holidays — even if they might look a little different this year.

Traditionally the holiday season inspires travel plans and joyful gatherings but this year health officials are pleading with people to stay home. As we were reminded on social media and in the news “A Zoom Thanksgiving is a lot better than an ICU Christmas.”

Yet despite the potential risk, a recent survey indicated approximately 28 percent of Americans plan to travel in December, compared to about 53 percent last year. Clearly with over a quarter of a million deaths from COVID-19 in the United States alone, the safest choice for the holidays this year is to celebrate with your immediate household only.

But what if you must travel? You can reduce your risk by taking critical precautions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommends travelers wear masks at all times when traveling via bus, train, plane, rideshare, or any other form of transit.

This is because we know from expert research that mask wearing, along with other safety measures like handwashing and social distancing, drastically reduces the spread of COVID-19.

As we learned more about this virus and adapted to new restrictions, some scientists expressed concern over transportation — airplanes, busses, subways, and other forms of public transport— being sources of superspreading events. What has been documented, however, is that this is not necessarily the case when proper precautions are taken.

Here is an example from early in the pandemic. A Vietnamese businesswoman exhibiting flu-like symptoms boarded a 10-hour flight in London destined for Hanoi, Vietnam, in March. She was coronavirus-positive and transmitted the virus to 15 people on the flight.

Then, the following month, airlines started  requiring passengers wear masks. Results reveal compulsory mask policies while flying can reduce the spread of infectious disease. How do we know this? A recent study of Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong provided real-time data, allowing for comparisons and more accurate contact tracing.

Specifically, a total of 58 passengers testing positive for COVID-19 travelled on flights for an eight-hour duration. However, none of the almost 2,000 other passengers on these said flights acquired the virus.

This could be in part because the air on flights is exchanged approximately every six minutes. The recirculated air passes through the HEPA filter and is mixed with “bleed air” (fresh air from the outside provided by engines).

You might ask how this data was gathered and here is the answer: Hong Kong health officials have tested and tracked all passengers who land on the island. They test everybody by PCR on arrival, quarantine them in single rooms for 14 days and then test the passengers again, which allows for accurate tracing.

Public transportation has also been shown to have similarly low risk when everyone strictly adheres to recommended safety precautions, including wearing a mask over the mouth and nose.

Research from the UK rail safety body (RSSB) indicates the risk of contracting COVID-19 during train travel is one in 11,000 journeys. Research from the University of Colorado Boulder, using a modeling exercise, showed a near zero percent risk of being infected after 70 minutes in a well-ventilated metro or bus ride with minimal talking and movement, combined with safety precautions.

Remember, although this research shows ways to help you reduce the risk of contracting the virus, there is no zero risk. If you do have to travel, consider important factors such as community levels of COVID-19, location and duration of the gathering you plan to visit and safety measures taken by those traveling with you.

We can all do our part to reduce our risk to ourselves and our communities by making smart, informed decisions. When using public transit, just like when visiting your grocery store, adhere to recommended safety procedures. Wash your hands. Wear a mask.

Rethink your holiday plans. The holidays might look a bit different this year, but we will keep moving forward.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. 

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