Is It Safe to Travel During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

A Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease Answers Your Questions

By Professor Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

During a recent discussion with The Great Courses, Dr. Barry Fox, M.D., addressed the top questions related to the novel coronavirus. In this highlight, Professor Fox discusses the safety of traveling during the pandemic.

Young lady wearing face mask travels in airport during coronavirus
Americans are asking what are the safest means of transportation during the pandemic. Image: Horth Rasur/Shutterstock

Are Cars the Best Way to Travel during the Pandemic?

Ideally, driving in one’s own vehicle—by car—is the best circumstance. You’re social distancing from others, [keeping] within your family circle.

But also keep in mind that there are statistics on motor vehicle accidents and safety as well. Car travel is less risky for acquiring COVID, but it may not be safer overall regarding mortality risk. You also need to take into account hotel stays, public bathroom use, etc, which all increase risk of exposure.

So ultimately, it depends to some extent on how far you are driving. Boston to NYC? Drive. Boston to California? Probably, better to fly.

What about Traveling on Busses and Trains?

I wouldn’t use packed buses, trains, or subways. Those are going to be places where there’s the potential for spread. Not only because there’s people that may not be wearing their mask and very little social distancing, but also because there’s confined air environments in those circumstances.

How Safe Is It to Fly during the Pandemic?

The air filtration on airplanes is actually very good. I think the circulation is something like 25 times per hour, and they also have high-efficiency particulate air filters that are on the airplanes.

Air circulation is not everything, though. You still ideally need social distancing of 6 feet or more AND masks to prevent transmission in the “hot zone”, as it was labeled in my course. This is the 6 feet around you where the virus may be spread by others before getting into the general airplane circulation

As for additional safety precautions on airlines, I would favor bringing some sanitizing wipes to clean seats, since the workers may not be able to disinfect well between flights. Also, keep in mind that the earlier the flight, the less likely this will be an issue. 

People have also brought up the role of TSA in safety screenings for passengers. This was proposed about a month ago, and may be occurring at some US sites. I think it was airline dependent, not TSA, as the government didn’t want to get into the screening business. It was not clear who was going to pay for the thermometers either. Unfortunately, at the time this article is being written, there is info on this elsewhere.

While it is true that screening would not identify those passengers who may be asymptomatic, it might identify those in the early phase of illness that were in “denial” and who were determined to travel in spite of the obvious symptoms.

If people are wearing masks, and hopefully performing a little bit of limited social distancing—I’m not endorsing airline travel right now necessarily—I would say that it might be the safest way to go.

You can watch the entire interview with Professor Fox below.

Image of Professor Barry Fox, M.D.

Dr. Barry Fox is a Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He currently practices in clinical infectious disease at two hospitals and a long-term care facility.