With fewer and fewer people wearing face masks on commercial airplane flights, is the Covid-19 coronavirus now in plane sight, so to speak? Well, the National Public Health Laboratory (MLAK) in Malaysia has now reported a finding that may make you want to face mask what’s happening. Wastewater samples from 28 of 29 flights in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, collected from June to December 31 of last year contained—guess what—the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). That’s according to an article in the Malaysian newspaper Sinar Harian.
Yep, nearly all of the flights had SARS-CoV-2 in their resulting sewage water. Actually that “nearly all” could very well become “all,” as the results from that 29th flight aren’t even back yet, based on what Malaysia’s Director General of Health Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, MD, MCh had told the Sinar Harian. This airplane wastewater testing was part of Malaysia’s ongoing Covid-19 environmental surveillance that’s consisted of testing samples of sewage water from a range of different sentinel locations.
Finding the SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater from an airplane doesn’t mean that the virus walked on to the flight, used the toilet, and then left before the flight took off for its destination. Viruses can’t board airplanes by themselves since they don’t have hands large enough to carry boarding passes. No, it means that at least one person on the flight was infected with and was actively shedding the SARS-CoV-2. And on a one-hour flight that means one hour of shedding the virus into the cabin. For a two-hour flight, that would be two hours of shedding. For a three-hour flight, that would be three hours of shedding. Take a wild guess as to what that would mean for four-hour flight.
If you do the math, 28 out of 29 flights comes out to a little over 96%. Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, who served as the 20th Surgeon General of the United States from September 5, 2017 until January 20, 2021, mentioned this 96% number in the following tweet thread:
As you can see, Adams wrote, “And to the pilot who advised me to take off my mask and ‘breathe free,’ I hope you didn’t harm one of your vulnerable passengers with your actions and advice, and that you don’t have or get long covid from your 96% daily chance of encountering the virus.” Umm, why would a pilot tell a passenger to take off his mask and “breathe free?” Isn’t that a bit like a lifeguard telling a swimmer to take off his swimsuit and “swim free?”
Adams added in the next tweet in the thread, “I’ve tweeted it before but it’s worth repeating -one of the most useful and cost-effective measures the Biden administration could take (more so than 4 free tests) would be to make high filtration masks available to people as they board planes, trains, buses, metros.” Face masks aren’t super expensive, You can probably buy a box of twenty N95 respirators for around $30. That’s about how much it costs to buy a T-shirt on Amazon that says, “This T-Shirt Cost $30.”
So, if someone is spewing the virus out of his or her nose and mouth, which one would you rather have: that person wearing a face mask or not wearing a face mask? At the same time, which one would leave you better protected: wearing a face mask or not wearing a face mask? Back in 2020, the original rationale for face mask requirements on flights was that people would be in tightly packed close quarters for at least an hour if not many hours. And study after study has shown that good quality face masks work in preventing the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2, as I’ve covered previously for Forbes.
Some have argued that the airplane filtration system alone would be enough to clear the airplane cabin of the SARS-CoV-2. But would such a system really pull the virus away before it can reach others as soon as the virus leaves a person’s nose and mouth? Wouldn’t that require a vacuum cleaner-like force to be applied right above each and every passenger’s nose and mouth? Such a force doesn’t seem to be present in airplane cabins. Otherwise, you’d see a lot more scarfs, food crumbs, hats, and toupées fly upwards to the suction devices.
You can’t really mask the fact that there’s a high probability that the SARS-CoV-2 is present on any given airplane flight. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet, regardless of what some politicians and personalities may tell you and how much they try to politicize the use of face masks. Love may not be all around but the SARS-CoV2 seems to be with upswings having occurred near the end of 2022. The pandemic certainly won’t last forever and neither will the need to wear face masks. But for now, with the SARS-CoV-2 in plane sight, wouldn’t it make sense to “air” on the side of safety?