• A study shows that leaving the middle seat open on airplanes can reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus by 23 to 57 percent.
  • The study did not assess how mask-wearing could further limit the spread.
  • Experts interviewed by Healthily say the research shows the value of physical distancing to limit COVID-19 cases.

New research shows that airlines can take one simple step to significantly reduce the risk of passengers being exposed to the coronavirus on flights.

According to a studyTrusted Source published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving the middle seat unoccupied on flights reduces the risk of exposure to the coronavirus by 23 to 57 percent, compared to a flight with full occupancy.

Although the study does come with a few caveats, it provides valuable data for airlines and travelers, according to two experts Healthline interviewed.

More space equals less spread

The data is more proof of what we’ve all been hearing since the pandemic started: Physical distancing works.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that it all comes down to how COVID-19 is transmitted — but he did take note of a limitation in the study.

“The study did not assess risk of transmission in relation to seat occupancy. It also conducted the study in mannequins without masks, not representative of current mask requirements while flying,” he noted out.

“That said, the study findings are still relevant, since we know that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by droplets at close range – less than 6 feet – but also by aerosols, via airborne transmission, at longer distances for longer durations in closed spaces without adequate ventilation,” Glatter added.

While the study didn’t assess how wearing a mask might change things, Glatter told Healthline the best-practice advice for passengers is still to wear a mask while traveling.

“While passengers who are fully vaccinated are at low risk for infection as well as transmission, it’s still in everyone’s interest to wear a mask,” he advised. “Having an empty seat – by virtue of distance – adds an additional layer of security to this blanket of protection.”

Another unanswered question is how airborne particles might spread to areas in front of or behind occupied seats.

Dr. Robert Amler, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told Healthline that it’s difficult to say.

“If you have more distance, so there’s more fresh air between you, it helps,” he said. “How does that compare with somebody across the aisle from you or somebody a few rows away, or the space just behind you and the seat just in front of you? It’s difficult to say.

“Like many studies done in the real world, this had its limitations, and about all you can say is that keeping a middle seat empty is a good idea. It seems that it’d be more protective, but you can’t definitively say how much more,” he added.CORONAVIRUS UPDATESStay on top of the COVID-19 pandemic

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What we’ve learned about distancing

Social distancing is a concept that was virtually unheard of before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s something that nearly everyone is familiar with.

The CDC study shows the value of adding even a small amount of distance between people in a confined area. The findings are likely relevant to other, more seasonal respiratory infections, too.

“Like a lot of people have speculated, I think we’re going to learn that some of the measures that have been taken against COVID have been effective in many ways, and the actual rate of influenza and other respiratory infections this past winter has been considerably lower,” said Amler. “I would love to see a more serious analysis of the data, but I’m certainly hearing from my friends in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, and pediatrics that they’ve seen decreases in these other respiratory-borne diseases.”

Amler also noted that, after more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions, many people are eager to make up for lost time by traveling – or have obligations that require travel. In these cases, he recommends following CDC guidelines regarding mask-wearing to limit exposure as much as possible.

“I’m positive that this pandemic will eventually come under control, and in the meantime we should try to do all the common-sense things that help us limit the spread of the virus,” he said. “It’s all about blocking exposure. If you have no exposure, you can’t get infected – and if you can’t get infected, there’s no risk. So that’s the key.”FEEDBACK:Written by Dan Gray on April 19, 2021 — Fact checked by Michael Crescionehttps://be7c10c7722c7781b544d44facd6782f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?upapi=truehttps://be7c10c7722c7781b544d44facd6782f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?upapi=truehttps://be7c10c7722c7781b544d44facd6782f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?upapi=true

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Masks and Physical Distancing: Why Two Interventions Are Better Than One

New research highlights that wearing face masks combined with physical distancing is more effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19 than either intervention alone. Solskin / Getty Images
  • Studies show that mask wearing and social distancing can help slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • Previously, it was not known how effective it would be to combine the two. Researchers studied this question by using a network model.
  • A network model can look at how individuals interact with each other to spread the disease.
  • They found that the combination of the two interventions is more effective than either alone in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Studies indicate that steps like mask wearing and physical distancing can help stem the spread of COVID-19.

However, it was not known exactly how effective these safety measures are when used at the same time.

In an attempt to study this question, researchers from New York University and Politecnico di Torino in Italy created a network model.

What they found in their study was very encouraging.

According to Alessandro Rizzo, PhD, and Maurizio Porfiri, PhD, two of the researchers who worked on the study, the combination of these two measures would be sufficient to halt the spread of the virus, if applied rigorously by more than 60 to 70 percent of the population.

This was an improvement over either measure alone, which would require nearly universal compliance.

How a network model helped them study the problem

The study authors chose to use a network model approach to study the problem.

Rizzo explained a network model by saying, “The population is represented by a set of nodes connected by edges, which represent contact potentially leading to infection.”

“You can think of a network as a grid whose intersections are people and whose segments are contacts that occur between them,” said Rizzo.

Network models can be used for many diverse applications, such as marketing or bird migrations.

In this particular study, their model was based on a “susceptible, exposed, infected, or removed (recovered or died) framework.”

Each node in the model represented an individual’s health status, while the edges represented potential contacts between individuals.

Porfiri said that with this type of modeling, it’s easy to include both drug and non-drug interventions, such as masks and physical distancing.

“For example, by acting on the edges of the network, it is possible to intervene on the transmission of the virus, and acting on the nodes can simulate vaccinations,” he explained.

The team used cellphone mobility data and Facebook surveys from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington to complete the model.

Because the data showed a tendency for people who wear masks to also reduce their mobility, the researchers split the nodes into those who regularly wore masks and physically distanced and those who didn’t.

Two interventions are better than one

“Neither social distancing nor mask wearing alone is likely sufficient to halt the spread of COVID-19, unless almost the entire population adheres to the single measure,” Porfiri said in a press release.

“But if a significant fraction of the population adheres to both measures, viral spreading can be prevented without mass vaccination.”

Their model found that rigorous compliance would be needed for around 60 to 70 percent of the population if both measures were applied.

The authors wrote in their study that this goal is a more “achievable” scenario than the high degree of compliance that would be needed with either measure alone.

According to Firas Zabaneh, MT (ASCP), CIC, CIE, director of system infection prevention and control for Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, it makes sense that combining both mask wearing and social distancing would obtain better results.

“Successfully controlling the spread of infectious diseases has always followed a set of interventions rather than relying solely on one magical intervention,” he said.

Zabaneh further explained that this is one of the basic principles of infection control, called a “care bundle,” which is practiced in hospitals around the world.

“Every intervention we apply provides an additional level of protection,” said Zabaneh.

“In other words, every intervention we add is intended to fill the gaps that other interventions were not able to block.”

A word of caution

While widespread compliance with these two public health measures could slow the spread of COVID-19, Zabaneh noted that relying on those alone would come with “enormous societal and economic costs.”

“The vaccine gives us the edge we need to eventually stop the epidemic. Herd immunity is the ultimate goal,” he said.

Zabaneh further cautioned that “patience is truly a virtue.”

“I know that our society is eager to resume a normal existence. However, we are so close now to stopping this horrific epidemic and we must not throw caution to the wind,” he said.

He added, “We must continue to follow science-based intervention and gradually ease restrictions.”


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