Is It Safe To Travel 2: COVID and Air Filtration


by John Simpson, Editor In Chief

It’s been a month since I posed the question: “Is it safe to fly to Florida?

It was a few days later that I did the math — very rough math, mind you; I’m no statistician, and The Not Fake News is a long long ways from The New England Journal of Medicine. (On the other hand, toss dice against me at your peril. Wargamers take note.) And, in the intervening weeks, the answer has changed a bit.

Some of you may jump to the conclusion that this is about Omicron, and I’ll admit that’s partly true. Omicron is a big unknown right now, mainly because “Death is a lagging indicator.” (My new favorite quote. Dr. Schaffter, NFID, in masterful understatement.) And unknowns change the odds, as any poker player can tell you.

On the other hand, look at the headline again, and ask yourself: If this was about Omicron, why wouldn’t I mention that at the top?

The biggest thing that’s changed is, I’ve spent a fair portion of the past few weeks asking questions about air filters, and I’m really not liking the answers.

How It’s Supposed To Work

Passenger airlines are a huge part of who we are as a nation right now, and their continued existence depends on keeping passengers moving. They need your money or they’re going away one at a time. Because of COVID, they haven’t been selling anywhere near as many tickets as before — and they were in trouble way back then. Thus, it’s in their interest to make their planes as safe as is practicable without in any way reducing the number of people they can pack on board each flight.

Which is fine, right? If everyone wears a mask like they’re supposed to, and if nobody that feels even slightly ill boards a plane, and if everyone gets vaccinated… OK, so that’ll never happen. There’s always that one screaming kid; he’s not wearing a mask and he’s letting the whole plane know about it. At full volume. Plus there are those conspiracy theorists toward the back; they’re doing the same, also at full volume, until someone removes them before takeoff to the applause of the passengers.

Who have already been exposed, and thank you very much.

This is why airlines advertise the DOD study, which according to Stars And Stripes tells us it’s perfectly safe to fly passenger airlines partly because they’re installing HEPA filters, and those suckers will clean the viruses right out of the air before you can breathe them in. They go on to explain that only 40% of the air on a plane is recirculated, while the rest comes from outside, and that it only takes three minutes to completely exchange the entire air volume of the craft.

How It Actually Works

All of the above is mostly true. You’re in less danger from someone sitting twenty seats away than the guy sitting next to you, but no level of filtering will protect you from him. You’d need to be wearing full Hazmat gear for that. Your paper mask is not all-powerful.

One big problem is that only some airplanes have the HEPA filters installed. If you’re on a low-budget airline, a local puddle-jumper, or an older plane, you’re probably not that lucky. The websites of Allegiant and Southwest advertise the filters, but local subcontractors aren’t required to follow the same policy, and not every plane is perfectly equipped, perfectly efficient, or frequently serviced.

The same holds for rail travel. The newest Amtrak trains have HEPA filters, but the older equipment simply doesn’t have the capacity — and the Silver Line, servicing Florida, is not remotely new. If you have a stateroom, you can close the door and keep to yourself, and most of the air comes from outdoors, but if you’re traveling coach it’s the same sort of hollow metal tube as a jumbo jet. (Not quite as airtight, mind you, which in other circumstances might be a mild annoyance but, right now, is a safety feature. Go figure.)

There is very little for pre-boarding health checks, depending on the state in which your airport (or rail station) lives. In most states, you’re required to sign a form saying you’re asymptomatic… but we’re told that most transmission occurs before visible symptoms.

And there are very few airports where the air you breathe is HEPA-filtered. When you’re waiting in line at security or going to the bathroom or stopping by the cafe, you’re breathing the same air as everyone else. For two hours before your flight.

The Bottom Line

When I did the math a month ago, I came up with a roughly one in forty chance of a negative outcome. If you stick to the biggest planes (or Amtrak staterooms), spend as little time as possible in an airport, wear a mask (plus goggles, for improved protection), have your shots and a booster, and plan to self-quarantine before travel and again after arrival, you’ll have a decent chance.

However, given this new information on filters, if you board a feeder flight, hang out in airport lounges, and are lackadaisical about your mask and handwashing, your numbers don’t look so good, especially considering the current spike in cases. Remember what Prof. Naismith said: Masks are useless if people won’t wear them. And, if you haven’t gotten your shots — get your shots.

From a political and social change standpoint: Call your Congressman and complain about the lack of HEPA air filters. Call your airline’s customer service hotline. Amtrak’s is 1-800-872-7245. Talk with the manager at your favorite restaurant and grocery store and suggest HEPA filtration.

Final Note

We’re almost there, folks. Merck’s COVID pill may be only 30% effective, but that’s 30% better than nothing. Pfizer’s looks pretty solid, especially when mixed with ritonavir, and should be on the market soon. Researchers around the world are working on new treatments as varied as the Llama Spray.

Be careful, especially as winter moves in. And above all, be patient. It’d be a real shame to relax and then catch this mere weeks before an effective treatment comes on the market.

If what you just read pisses you off, that’s not because it’s wrong. People are wrong every day and it doesn’t get to you. If you’re upset by this article, it’s because deep down you’re afraid it’s true.

No, The Not Fake News did not “get the memo” to “fall in line or else”; we’d find it hard to believe that anything else would be worse than this. We’re not shills of the public narrative; we don’t take marching orders from major media. We’re independent, and because we don’t get payoffs or even ad money, we’re poor but reliable.

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