Story at a glance

  • The agency believes nearly 11,000 people may have been exposed to COVID-19 on airplanes in the U.S.
  • While some of those travelers reportedly fell ill, the CDC was not able to confirm a case of viral transmission on a plane due to incomplete contact tracing information and the days-long incubation period.
  • A separate analysis from the CDC found one person with COVID-19 infected 15 others during a long-haul flight from London to Vietnam in early March.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has identified thousands of people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus during flights, the Washington Post reports. 

The CDC reportedly investigated 1,600 cases in which passengers flew while they were contagious with the virus and found nearly 11,000 people may have been exposed. While some of those travelers reportedly fell ill, the CDC was not able to confirm a case of viral transmission on a plane due to incomplete contact tracing information and the days-long incubation period, according to the Post.


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The agency said that does not mean transmission on flights hasn’t occurred as recent studies have found that COVID-19 may have spread on airplanes in other countries. 

“An absence of cases identified or reported is not evidence that there were no cases,” Caitlin Shockey, a spokesperson for the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told The Washington Post. 

“CDC is not able to definitively determine that potential cases were associated (or not) with exposure in the air cabin or through air travel given the numerous opportunities for potential exposure associated with the entire travel journey and widespread global distribution of the virus,” Shockey told the outlet. 


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The CDC’s own guidance says that while air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals that bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces, most viruses do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.

“However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” the guidance says. 

A separate analysis from the CDC found one person with COVID-19 infected 15 others during a long-haul flight from London to Vietnam in early March. 

Researchers identified a 27-year-old woman in business class as the primary source of the outbreak. She first developed symptoms in late February and boarded the plane March 1 while symptomatic. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 five days after the 10-hour flight. 

The analysis found she had infected 12 people in business class, two passengers in economy and one flight attendant. The flight had 217 people aboard. 

The incident occurred before most airlines required passengers to wear masks while on board. 

Researchers found the most likely route of transmission during the flight was aerosol or droplet transmission, particularly for those in business class. Contact with the infected passenger might have also happened outside the airplane at the airport in the pre-departure lounge area or during boarding.


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Published on Sep 22, 2020