by Donald Wood
Last updated: 12:13 PM ET, Wed September 8, 2021
A new study found the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while traveling drops to less than 0.1 percent when all travelers test negative 72 hours before their flight.
According to data from Delta Air Lines and the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, performing a single COVID-19 molecular test within 72 hours of departure could decrease the rate of people actively infected onboard to a level significantly lower than active community infection rates.
The study of nearly 10,000 air travelers examined customer data on Delta's COVID-tested flight corridors between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Italy's Fiumicino International Airport.
Information provided by the Georgia Department of Health and the Mayo Clinic should infection rates on COVID-19-tested flights were 0.05 percent or 5 in 10,000 passengers, much lower than the 1.1 percent average community infection rate.
"We are going to live with COVID-19 variants for some time," Delta Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting said. "This real-world data - not simulation models - is what governments around the world can use as a blueprint for requiring vaccinations and testing instead of quarantines to re-open borders for international travel."
"Air travel risk varies depending on case rates and vaccination rates at the origin and destination, masking and other factors," Ting continued. "But the data collected from this study show that the routine use of a single molecular test within 72 hours before international travel for unvaccinated individuals significantly mitigates the risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission during airline travel."
Ting said Delta's real-world experience and testing protocols demonstrate that a very low risk of infection transmission is possible, confirming previous simulation models.
"When you couple the extremely low infection rate on board a COVID-19-tested flight with the layers of protection on board including mandatory masking and hospital-grade air filtration, the risk of transmission is less than one in one million between the United States and the United Kingdom, for example," Ting said. "These numbers will improve further as vaccination rates increase and new cases decrease worldwide."
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