NerdWallet: Is COVID spreading on airplanes? Why doesn’t anyone know?

by | Aug 24, 2022 | Stock Market

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.  It seems like all my friends got COVID this summer, and many think they got it on a plane. But that’s as anecdotal as data gets. What does, you know, science have to say?

I talked to Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-wrote a recent paper that modeled the risk of contracting COVID while flying early in the pandemic. He and his student combed through the available data and built a complex mathematical model to determine the risk of getting infected onboard. Yet they ran into limitations, because no organized effort was made by the U.S. or any country to systematically contact trace COVID transmissions onboard aircraft. “Nobody is screened. Nobody is asked if they’ve come down with COVID,” he explains. “There was no attempt made to figure out where people got it. We have so little data.” That’s right, of all the billions spent combating the virus, supplying at-home testing kits and bailing out the airlines, little to none of it was spent answering the basic question of where and how people actually contracted the disease in the first place. Models like Barnett’s, while helpful, offer only best guesses. “If we had actual data from the United States, then maybe we wouldn’t have needed a model,” he says. One systematic attempt to contact trace on a flight that landed in Vietnam found that, of the 16 passengers who tested positive, 12 were in business class, where the one symptomatic case was found. In other words, a bunch of high-price ticket holders at the front of the plane got sick from the same person. Yet this study from Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology was performed in March 2020. Think of what could have happened if we had kept collecting data throughout the pandemic. Also se …

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