Single plane passenger gave COVID-19 to 15 others: CDC

'Seating proximity was strongly associated with increased infection risk,' wrote the researchers.


A 27-year-old businesswoman aboard an international flight infected 15 others with COVID-19 earlier this year.

According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the unnamed Vietnamese passenger was suffering from a sore throat and cough when she boarded a flight from London to Hanoi, Vietnam. She tested COVID positive four days later, NBC News reports. 

Researchers used contact-tracing to determine that the woman passed on the potentially deadly contagion to others onboard the March 1 flight. Out of the 217 passengers, twelve in business class and two in economy, as well as a crew member, were infected, the study says.

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Health officials said at the time of the flight that passengers and crew members were not required to wear masks in airplanes or at airports. Thermal imaging was used to screen travellers from high-risk COVID-19-infected areas, including the U.K. The CDC study does mention whether the woman’s symptoms were flagged during the screening process prior to boarding. 

. “Seating proximity was strongly associated with increased infection risk,” wrote the researchers, Forbes reports.

“The risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class–like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on airplanes,” the researchers noted. “As long as COVID-19 presents a global pandemic threat in the absence of a good point-of-care test, better on-board infection prevention measures and arrival screening procedures are needed to make flying safe.”

The Washington Post reports nearly 11,000 people have been exposed to the coronavirus on flights. Meanwhile, there are reportedly 215 COVID-infected TSA employees.

The CDC’s official guidance warns: “Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within six feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

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