COVID-19: Is It Safe to Fly?

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You may have been postponing a trip, wondering whether it is safe to fly again.

I just returned from a conference in Pittsburgh, and things appeared normal—more or less. The plane was full, and the terminal was busy. There were frequent announcements over the loudspeaker about the requirement to be masked inside the terminal, under pain of unspecified federal criminal penalties. On the plane, we were asked to put our mask back on between bites or sips.

My glasses kept getting fogged up—proof that air goes around the mask. I did not feel safer surrounded by all the masks. COVID, like other respiratory viruses, probably spreads by aerosols, way past the 6-ft mark. Cabin air is filtered and recirculated. Is ultraviolet light used? Is the system tested for effectiveness in removing viruses? It seems that these measures would be a great selling point. I have frequently taken the risk of breathing airplane air for years, and I personally feel no more anxious about it now—but then it seems less risky than seeing patients.

Most airlines will require all employees to take the COVID vaccine or be fired. Some employers claim to accept medical or religious exemptions, but most of these may be denied. Although fact sheets for products available under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) say that receipt is voluntary, this is being ignored. Only one product (Comirnaty), which is said to be nearly the same as the Pfizer vaccine, has FDA approval, but it is not yet available in the U.S. Pfizer is still under an EUA.

So, should one feel more or less safe flying after the vaccination deadline? Consider:

  • The vaccine does not prevent infection or transmission—it is only claimed to reduce severity. A vaccinated person may shed at least as much virus as an unvaccinated one.
  • Some airline personnel are retiring early or getting fired because they do not want to be injected with this product. How many experienced pilots or mechanics or flight attendants or ground personnel can the industry afford to lose? I would expect more delays or cancelled flights. Not everyone can be replaced by a kiosk.
  • Previously healthy, asymptomatic people have died suddenly soon after receiving the vaccine. All 16,000 or 40,000 might be called a coincidence by our government. But how much excess risk do you wish to take that your pilot might have a fatal blood clot during flight?
  • There are worrisome signals of longer-term effects such as cancer, heart damage, or autoimmune disease. How many essential workers will be disabled in the next year? This is impossible to know at the present time.

More people whom I know are choosing to drive long distances when they would have flown previously. The suppression of discussion about potential vaccine harm can only fuel distrust.

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