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Headlines Shout of Covid-19 Exposure on Flights, but Look Deeper—It's Worse | Frommer's Thanakorn.P/ Shutterstock

Headlines Shout of Covid-19 Exposure on Flights, but Look Deeper—It's Worse

You might have seen a few headlines this week casting doubt on whether flying is safe.

Here's one from the New York Post, dated September 21: "Woman spread coronavirus to 15 people on international flight."

Terrifying, right? The outbreak was traced to a flight from Vietnam to London. Our containment measures aren't working!

But read past the headline. 

The incident happened March 1, weeks before passengers were required to wear masks on flights.

So this news report has nothing to tell us about whether current safety protocols work. 

Here's another report from Saturday's edition of The Washington Post: "Nearly 11,000 people have been exposed to the coronavirus on flights, the CDC says."

That sounds bloodcurdling until you realize that 11,000 exposures does not mean 11,000 infections. It means that 11,000 people were exposed to someone with Covid-19 on a flight. But that figure by itself says nothing about whether anyone actually contracted the virus as a result.

In fact, if you read the story, you find this: Out of 1,600 cases of people who flew while coronavirus-positive, the CDC "has not been able to confirm a case of transmission on a plane."

The CDC can't be sure about that, because it's not looking into every case. It can't. It doesn't hear about every case.

Yet the CDC's official guidance to travelers says that the virus can't spread easily on planes because of how the air is filtered

So let us get this straight. Air filtration systems on planes are supposed to set our minds at ease, according to the government, but at the same time it can't tell us how many people have actually been infected on flights because it isn't tracking infections comprehensively.

No wonder the headlines are freaking us out. 

The airlines claim their flights are as safe as can be, given the circumstances. Considering how difficult it is to cite outbreaks that were connected to flights adhering to current mask-and-distancing protocols, we're at a loss to challenge those claims with any evidence to the contrary

Airline travel could be perfectly safe the way we're doing it, but the government isn't doing the work to make sure.

Washington Post further illustrates the train wreck that assessing airline safety has become: Keeping track of Covid-19 infections is wildly unreliable on the local level.

"Of the nearly 100 state and major local health departments contacted by The Washington Post," according to the newspaper, "most did not provide a number of coronavirus cases they have documented involving air travel, with some saying they were not tracking that data. In addition, not every case identified locally becomes a CDC investigation."

Even where local jurisdictions are tracking Covid-19 infections, the CDC only looked into 1,600 potential incidents, despite having identified some 11,000 potential exposures.

Basically, the government is admitting that it would be awfully nice if the government were tracing infections.

Without the creation of a federal tracing program to force local authorities to keep tabs on potential in-flight infections, we will never know how dangerous Covid-19 really is on planes, let alone know how to alert people who are unwittingly spreading the disease.

Nearly seven months into this, the United States is still sending people onto airplanes, fortified without much more than a hunch and crossed fingers.

The U.S. organized response to Covid-19 has been utterly shambolic.

This far into the pandemic, there's no excuse for forcing travelers to guess about scary headlines and to rely on anecdotal evidence.