In an effort to keep COVID-19 transmission low on flights, Delta, American Airlines, and Jet Blue announced last week that they will be offering refunds to those who don’t pass airport temperature checks. The temperature screenings are meant to help identify those infected with the coronavirus at security checkpoints, but Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says temperature screenings on their own aren’t enough to keep infected people off of planes.
“We know that half of the people with this disease have no symptoms, so you’re going to miss half the people that are infectious to begin with,” says Dr. Labus. “Beyond that, these devices are not perfect, they don’t necessarily find fevers, and not everybody even has a fever even if they are sick. You could take Tylenol and it could decrease your temperature to the point where you can get on the plane and still be infecting others. It may be providing a false sense of security that this is enough to actually protect people when they get on a plane.”
A pre-flight temperature screening doesn’t involve a TSA agent sticking a thermometer in your mouth. Dr. Labus says they use tools like thermal cameras and temperature guns to take the temperature of one’s skin. “If you were doing an actual thermometer, it’d be a lot trickier to do it but that’s a medical device designed to take somebody’s temperature,” says Dr. Labus. “In this case, we’re talking about a lot of devices that are not designed for medical purposes. They’re not designed to detect fevers. And just because your skin is warm doesn’t mean you have a fever, you may have just run through a hot parking lot to get into the airport and that’s why your [skin] temperature is elevated.”
Temperature screenings are one of many precautions airlines are taking. Airlines for America, a trade organization representing several major airlines, said in a statement that they’re continuing to require all passengers to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth while staff implements intensive disinfecting protocols. Additionally, the airlines have introduced a range of policies like back-to-front boarding and adjusting food and beverage services to reduce interaction. Airlines for America represents Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest, Hawaiian, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Atlas Air, and associate member Air Canada.
Dr. Labus says the best way to reduce the risk of transmission to passengers is to mandate that everyone wears a mask for the duration of flights and to keep the capacity on planes low. “Leave the center seats open so you’re not sitting right up against somebody else,” he says. However, American Airlines and United Airlines announced that they’ve resumed filling flights to capacity.
“The airports are closing off every other urinal so people don’t stand next to each other for 20 seconds, yet the airlines are saying it’s safe to fly across country elbow-to-elbow with somebody else,” says Dr. Labus. “That’s just a recipe for disease transmission. The more people you put in a small space the greater risk of disease transmission. As case numbers are trending up nationwide, this is not the time to be doing that.”
If you’re seated in the window and someone else is with COVID-19 is seated in the aisle or in the next row, you’re still in a very high-risk situation. But, Dr. Labus says that doesn’t mean we should give up on maintaining distance. “The risk decreases with distance,” says Dr. Labus. “You can’t do that six feet on a plane. But just because you can’t do six feet doesn’t mean you should change it to zero feet.”
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