CDC identifies nearly 11,000 potential COVID-19 exposures on 1,600 flights

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has been made aware of 1,600 flights on which people symptomatic and infected with COVID-19 flew between January and August 2020. 

According to an agency spokesperson, the CDC identified nearly 11,000 potential exposures among flight passengers who sat within a 6-foot range of passengers who had contracted the illness. 

“Among those 1,600 flights, 10,900 potential exposures among passengers were identified as having sat within a 6-foot range for droplet transmission by passengers symptomatic and infected with SARS CoV 2,” a CDC spokesperson said. 

“CDC identified and notified relevant health departments about these 10,900 on-board close contacts,” the CDC spokesperson said. 

The agency explained significant limitations to the findings, including: 

  • Incomplete contact information for all exposed contacts
  • Delayed timing of notification of an infectious traveler
  • Contacts are narrowly defined by 6-feet radius
  • In most cases, contacts were not tested unless they were symptomatic
  • Incomplete available testing and outcomes information for exposed individuals

According to the CDC’s guidance on air travel, “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 sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” the agency said.

Security lines and waiting in airport terminals along with transportation and ridesharing such as Uber and Lyft can increase a traveler’s chances of being exposed to the coronavirus, according to the CDC. 

Considering the risk of COVID-19 transmission, airline companies have implemented various protocols aimed at keeping passengers safe. 

In July, United Airlines announced it would extend its face mask requirement from its planes into airports and terminals. 

“In addition to on board our aircraft, face masks must be worn at customer service counters and kiosks, United Club locations, gates and baggage claim areas,” the company tweeted.

Delta, JetBlue and Southwest have similar requirements. Most U.S. airlines require passengers other than small children and those with certain health problems to wear a mask during flights, except while eating or drinking.

But the stringent protocols haven't stopped some passengers from refusing to wear facial coverings. Videos of incidents have been uploaded to social media showing people refusing to wear masks being escorted off of flights. 

One such incident occurred on Sept. 9, when several passengers screamed at a maskless fellow passenger to get off the plane.

Incidents like these have become relatively commonplace. Delta Airlines announced last month that it had placed more than 240 people on a “no fly list” for failing to comply with its mandatory mask policy.

As airline companies work to combat further spread of the coronavirus on flights and in airports, the Trump administration announced plans to end enhanced health screening of travelers on inbound international flights.

Screenings has been conducted at select U.S. airports since January, when the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported from Wuhan, China. In March, incoming international flights from select high-risk countries had to be directed to 15 designated airports in the United States for health screenings of incoming international passengers.

RELATED: CDC announces end to COVID-19 airport screenings for international travelers entering US

On Sept. 14,  the U.S. government began removing requirements directing all flights carrying airline passengers arriving from certain countries to land at one of 15 designated airports and halted health screenings from passengers arriving from other countries.

“We now have a better understanding of COVID-19 transmission that indicates symptom-based screening has limited effectiveness because people with COVID-19 may have no symptoms or fever at the time of screening, or only mild symptoms,” the CDC said in a statement on the policy change.

The CDC said it is shifting its strategy to prioritize other public health measures to reduce the risk of travel-related disease transmission.

Stephanie Weaver contributed to this story.