If you want to fly during the pandemic, follow these immunologist-approved packing tips
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Whether you’re planning an essential trip or a post-pandemic getaway, one thing’s for certain: traveling will change because of the coronavirus. After months of sheltering in place, Americans are treating their cabin fever with local staycations and long-distance road trips in record numbers. And as perceptions that the threat of Covid-19 is easing up (fact check: it’s not), travelers are likely going to feel safer taking to the skies.
“The world as we knew it is never going to be the same,” says Dr. Robert Quigley, an infectious disease expert and Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director at International SOS and its subsidiary, MedAire. “Regardless of what happens in the next six, nine, or 12 months, or two years, we are always going to be much more aware of personal hygiene, infection control spreading of common colds. The coronavirus has created a whole new heightened awareness that is never going to go away.”
But is it really safe to board a plane right now? It all depends on how well you prepare, says the former immunologist and thoracic surgeon. He tells Rolling Stone that he hasn’t flown in four months; for comparison, his pre-pandemic schedule involved weekly flights around the world, including to his company’s headquarters in London and Singapore.
International travel is “hovering well below 50%, and domestic is a little less than that, but it’s rising,” says Quigley. That’s concerning because the best way to curb the spread of the virus is by limiting exposure, such as by traveling, he says.
Travelers need to remember that social distancing and “universal precautions” (such as washing your hands with soap and water and wearing a face mask) are effective in preventing exposure to airborne droplets that cause Covid-19, Quigley explains. “If you’re going to travel through airports, you want to try to adhere to those two best practices as best as possible. The social distancing is going to be a challenge on airplanes, as you are putting yourself at risk” being in close proximity to others, he explains.
Once you’ve boarded your flight, you’ll want to keep your masks on as long as possible, he continues. Airplanes are equipped with HEPA filters that catch 99.9% of particles as small as 0.1 to 0.3 microns, so they are effective in filtering the Covid-19 particle, which is about 0.1 microns but usually binds to something larger. “What we can rely on is the good air movement, which is almost more important than the air filter themselves,” says Quigley. So even if someone on the flight is infected, “you’re very unlikely to inhale a load of virus that’s enough to affect you,” he notes.
One former frequent flier who has put those precautions to the test is Carlye Wisel, a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who covers theme parks and travel. Before March, Wisel was on a plane about every 10 days for personal and professional trips. Even before the coronavirus, she already adhered to a rigorous cleaning routine that involved wiping down her plane seat and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes.
Wisel’s first mid-pandemic flight brought her to Orlando to report on the reopening of Walt Disney World and its effect on employees and the local economy. The journey to the Magic Kingdom is a route she knows well, considering she has a preferred airline and departure and arrival days and times. “I changed everything I did with that flight,” she says, including switching from her go-to airline to one that had stricter safety protocols. “This was the first time when someone didn’t snicker when I wiped my seat down,” she adds.
If possible, Quigley recommends wearing an N95 mask instead of just a cloth face covering, which is good for “protecting other people from me in case I’m an asymptomatic carrier” of Covid-19. Also called an N95 respirator, “[it’s] a mask that we know will prevent inhalation of the virus, assuming they’re worn properly. I’d wear a face shield as well,” he adds. “Avoid touching your eyes and mouth too,” he says.
For her work trip, Wisel says she wore a KN95 mask (which is certified differently than N95) underneath a cloth face covering at the airport and during her flight, and made a conscious decision to sit in an empty area of the terminal. She avoided removing her masks while at the airport except for during check-in (when identification is needed), and didn’t eat or drink until she left her arrival airport.
Although studies show that the coronavirus doesn’t survive well on soft surfaces and shoes, Wisel says she took extra precautions at her hotel room and created a “decontamination area” for all germs at the front door where she left any items (such as clothing and bags) that were exposed to germs on benches and other public surfaces. While her measures seem “extreme,” she says, she points out that visiting a theme park — albeit for work — during a pandemic was a major risk, and her precautions helped her feel “in control of what’s happening.”
Quigley also strongly suggests preparing for the worst. That means bringing enough clothing, medicine, and any other essential supplies for at least 14 days in the event you need to be quarantined. “Lots of people who are dependent on medications may need an extra two-week supply,” he says. Think heart medication, insulin, antidepressants, inhalers, and other prescriptions or over-the-counter medicine that may be hard to get when traveling, or that require special storage. “Nothing worst than being somewhere that may not have the drug that you need, or it may be illegal [in some countries].”
You should also clothing, accessories, and footwear for the weather at any layovers and your final destination. “We have to be very, very proactive and think through all of the elements of, ‘What would happen if I get stuck here?’,” says Quigley.
In addition to checking TSA and CDC‘s travel websites before you pack, Quigley says these are other key things to keep in mind:
To keep staff and travelers as safe as possible, the TSA has instituted new rules to its security guidelines. The latest TSA Covid-19 procedures as of this writing include:
If it’s necessary for you to take a flight during the pandemic, you’ll want to follow all safety mandates and take extra precautions. We’ve rounded up some Covid-19 travel essentials as well as other handy accessories for making your trip stress-free — check out our top picks below.
These five-layer disposable KN95 masks come in a pack of 20. They feature an adjustable nose wire and elastic ear loops for comfort, too.
Daylead, the manufacturer of these particular non-medical face masks, are included on the FDA Emergency Use Authorization List, and the CDC’s test also found that efficiency was above 95%. The safest KN95 masks to use will meet both of these guidelines.