Tips for safe plane travel during the BA.5 surge

The author in a 3M respirator (with P100 filters), on the plane to Denver, Colorado.

This weekend, I traveled to Denver, Colorado for the final trip in an early-career fellowship which has covered some travel and trainings for me this past year.

Of course, going anywhere on a plane right now, during an intense COVID-19 surge, is not something I’d normally choose to do. This is basically my one plane trip of the summer; all my other travel has been by train and/or car.  (And the fellowship event itself had some safety measures in place, eg. required masks and rapid tests.)

But I know a lot of people are traveling by plane right now—I know, because I saw so many of them at JFK Airport. So, I wanted to share a few things I did on this trip to reduce my risk.

First: I bought a respirator. These devices, considered to be a step above N95s/KN95s, are intended for use in occupational settings, such as for workers in chemical plants or firefighters going into smoke. You can read more about them on this CDC NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) page.

I think of mine like a reusable N95 mask, with great longevity and an excellent seal to my face. I ordered one from 3M, which has several NIOSH-approved options. I also learned more about different respirators at Patient Knowhow, a site with reviews of a few major N95-equivalent options. (I recently talked to the site’s founder, Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, for an upcoming article on ventilation.)

It’s important to note that, if you get one of these respirators, you may need to order air filters separately. I got P100 filters, which are the highest grade. Another add-on may be an exhalation valve filter, which cleans the air you exhale out of your respirator (basically, further ensuring that you aren’t getting other people sick as you wear it).

Now, one challenge with these respirators is that they may freak people out a little. I feel like a bug-eyed sci-fi villain with mine on; though I’m well-accustomed to NYC’s blase attitude towards weird behavior, so I don’t mind if I freak people out. For others, this could be a greater concern.

Respirators also aren’t common mask options yet, though they seem to be growing more popular—my Twitter selfie of me in my respirator on the plane got over 200 likes. But they aren’t yet well-known in transit settings. While I personally didn’t have issues (other than a bit of confusion at JFK’s security screening), I know that others have been told to take these off on flights. It’s good to have a backup N95/KN95 in case that happens.

Second: I follow guidance from ventilation experts. If you’d like to read about how plane ventilation works, masking options, and other small ways to improve travel safety, you can find a lot of this advice on Twitter. “Ventilation Twitter,” as I recently described it to a journalist friend, is generally very welcoming and willing to triage questions.

One key piece of advice: while I kept my respirator on throughout my flights (seriously, the briefest breaks possible for water and food), I made especially sure to stay masked while planes were at the gate or landing. These are the points in a flight when the plane’s ventilation system isn’t switched on, making masking more important.

Saahil Desai provides a helpful explanation of these priority periods for masking in a recent Atlantic article. Though I’d like to note, some experts have suggested that the article downplays the importance of masking as much as you can throughout a flight and using other safety strategies as well.

More helpful threads on this subject…

Third: I avoid indoor dining as much as possible. This is, of course, one of the highest-risk settings for catching the coronavirus, because you have to take your mask off to eat or drink—while others nearby are also unmasking to eat or drink.

Sometimes, one can be put into tricky situations when there are truly no outdoor dining options (such as on a long airplane trip). But even in that scenario, there are ways to reduce risk. For example, when I needed to eat breakfast at JFK Airport, I found a corner of an unused gate where I could be relatively far from other people, rather than sitting in a crowded food court area.

I also appreciated that the other fellows in my group followed my recommendation for an outdoor dinner on Thursday evening, before our official activities started!

And finally: lots of testing. Remember, rapid tests can indicate whether you’re actively spreading the coronavirus, but PCR tests are still the gold standard for accuracy. I try to get PCR tests before and after travel or large gatherings, to be certain of my status. (Though I acknowledge that I live in NYC, where public testing is still available, albeit in decline.)

This trip went from Thursday to Saturday, with the riskiest event being an indoor dinner on Friday evening. My tests included: PCR test on Wednesday (same-day results); rapid test on Thursday morning; rapid test on Friday morning; rapid test on Friday evening (right before the dinner); rapid test on Saturday morning; and a planned PCR test for next Wednesday or Thursday. Rapid tests and symptom monitoring were also required for the rest of my group.

Is all of this inconvenient? Sure, somewhat. But I consider it worthwhile to have a safe trip and protect the people around me. If you have other safety tips or questions on this topic to share, please reach out and let me know.

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