One of our most recent articles discussed the health risks an elderly person faces when they board an airplane.
While you should worry about the risk of DVT and possible cardiovascular issues in your senior loved one from the altitude and long hours spent sitting on a plane, you might also stress about their COVID-19 risk, even now that the pandemic has officially come to an end.
Is it safe for the elderly to fly during COVID-19 times?
While seniors are at an elevated risk of getting COVID-19 due to age, flying on a plane can be safe if the senior masks up and is vaccinated.
Even still, COVID-19 can happen, so a senior should consider quarantining and monitoring their health when they return.
This guide on the elderly and COVID-19 will provide lots of useful information to help you decide if the senior in your life should get on a plane.
We’ll talk about COVID risks on flights, how effective masks are at preventing COVID, and tactics for avoiding illness.
Is It Safe For Vaccinated Seniors To Fly?
In August 2021, COVID-19 vaccines were first approved by the FDA. Since then, the vaccines have become widespread.
While there were massive waiting lists to get a COVID vaccine when they were first rolled out, now that all interested parties have received the first, second, and subsequent doses, it’s easy enough to get vaccinated.
Let’s say that your senior parent or loved one is all caught up with their COVID vaccines and they’re excited to get away to an all-inclusive resort or take that European vacation they had to put off during the pandemic.
Or maybe you’re taking your elderly parents on a family vacation.
Whatever the event, you worry about the senior in your life getting on a plane and catching COVID, even if they’re vaccinated.
Is this likely, or is it safe for the vaccinated elderly to fly?
According to the National Council on Aging, the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s dual-dose COVID vaccines can be up to 95 percent effective. (CNN recently reported that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is no longer available in the United States.)
Those effectiveness numbers surely are promising and should give you some peace of mind.
However, a late 2022 article from UT Southwestern Medical Center found that the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine goes down the older the recipient is.
The antibodies from the COVID vaccine don’t work as well in the elderly as they do in younger patients who receive the same vaccine dosage.
To come to this conclusion, the researchers studied 51 participants between 21 and 82 years old.
None of the participants had COVID, and they all received at least two dosages of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sometime from December 2020 to February 2021.
So what does this tell you, a concerned adult child, wondering if your senior parent or loved one can fly after receiving a COVID vaccine?
A senior should be okay to fly. Even if their vaccine protected them at full efficacy, the risk of developing COVID-19 after a vaccine is never zero percent.
If they’re aware of that, mask up, and monitor for symptoms, they should be fine.
They might also want to test for COVID and quarantine upon their return depending on their test results.
What Are The Risks Of Getting COVID-19 On An Airplane?
Before you decide if it’s safe for the senior in your life to fly, you must know, how likely are they to contract COVID-19 on a plane, anyway?
We don’t have to guess, as we have an answer to that question.
A 2022 report published in the journal Health Care Management Science featuring MIT scholars reviewed the risk of catching COVID on a plane between June 2020 and February 2021.
According to the findings, the risk of contracting COVID on a two-hour flight was over one in 1,000 from December 2020 through January 2021.
The risk later became one in 6,000 in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic still raged but not as severely.
Between June 2020 and February 2021, the transmission rate of COVID-19 on a two-hour flight was one in 2,000 using a median of one in 2,250 and a mean of one in 1,400.
However, we must discuss the results further.
The Study Doesn’t Focus On Participant Age
While the transmission rates in the MIT data do skew low, there is no mention in the study of the age of the participant.
People of all ages fly on airplanes, from newborn babies to the elderly.
Without that age data, it’s hard to say if the numbers above would apply to seniors or if the COVID risk would be higher.
The studies from the last section suggest that the risk would indeed be higher.
The Study Was Done When Masks Were Required
Another factor of note is the study period. MIT reviewed the data beginning in the summer of 2020 until early 2021.
Since COVID-19 numbers surged in most parts of the world during this period, many countries had mask mandates.
We’ll talk in the next section about how effective masks are in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but as a small giveaway, they do work.
In the ensuing years, instances of COVID-19 have gone down as more people have gotten vaccinated and boosted.
This has given lawmakers the confidence to drop mask mandates.
People have also gotten tired of COVID, which has been around for three years and shows few signs of disappearing.
Even if they were supposed to wear masks, many have stopped.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane could be higher in 2023 than in 2020 or just as high because more people don’t wear masks.
The Study Was Done Before COVID Variants Spread
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the L strain was the only COVID strain. This was the one that emerged from Wuhan, China in late 2019.
As we’ve begun combatting COVID with vaccines and medications, the virus has mutated, developing more and more variants.
Each variant is more contagious than the last, or thereabouts.
Compared to the timeframe of the data in the study, only a few variants existed.
Today, there are far more, and there could be even more still in the future. That too can increase one’s risk of developing COVID on a plane.
COVID Reporting Isn’t As Accurate Anymore
One could argue that COVID-19 reporting, which was based on people admitting they were sick, was never 100 percent accurate.
Initially, people felt embarrassed about admitting they got COVID, especially because it would make it clear they had violated stay-at-home orders.
Three years after the start of the virus, people have just forgotten or don’t care to report illness data anymore.
However, between 2020 and 2021, COVID numbers reporting was prevalent and painted a mostly full picture of the illness rate.
Today, the low reporting rates can create a false sense of security, making flying seem safer than it is.
Does Wearing A Mask On A Plane Help Prevent You From Getting Sick?
We said we would discuss face masks, so let’s do that now.
They’re an effective way to limit the spread of disease. When you cough, droplets can travel up to four meters, reports the journal Medical Devices & Sensors in a 2021 publication.
Masks are effective in a two-fold fashion. They catch your own droplets when you cough so you don’t spread them.
If someone else coughs around you, the droplets do not land on your nose or mouth where you inhale them.
Rather, they land on the mask, which you either dispose of or wash before wearing again.
Different types of masks have varying levels of efficacy, so let’s discuss the mask types now.
Reusable cloth masks can effectively reduce the spread of illness if you select a woven fabric (such as cotton) and if your mask has several layers.
A single-layered cloth mask might still allow droplets through, especially if the fabric is looser.
A type of respirator, N95 masks are the most adept at preventing illness, as these masks can filter out smaller and larger particles alike.
Surgical N95s–which you’ll see in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other medical facilities–are not widely available to the public.
Fortunately, they work just as well as non-surgical N95s, which the public can readily acquire.
Like the N95, a KN95 mask is also a respirator. These are of optimal quality for filtering out particles of various sizes.
Surgical or medical masks are a common type of mask. They’re the ones most of us wore during the pandemic.
They have a relatively loose fit, although they often feature a metal band around the nose that you can bend to tighten the fit.
You can also adjust the ear loops such as knotting them.
Medical masks can filter out large particles, but not smaller ones.
The CDC says that any mask is better than no mask in preventing COVID-19 spread.
What Is The Best Way To Avoid COVID On A Plane?
While truly, the best way to avoid getting COVID on a plane is not to fly, that’s not feasible for many people, even the elderly.
Let’s go over some more attainable measures a senior can take to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19 on a flight.
You’re already aware that masks are a sufficient measure for lowering the risk of getting COVID-19.
Even if everyone else is over wearing masks by now, you should still wear one if you want to avoid COVID.
Medical and cloth masks get the job done, but N95 and KN95 masks are more effective.
Make sure the mask fits you properly and is on your face tightly. Keep the mask around your nose and mouth the entire time.
Wash Your Hands When You Can
It’s through a combination of masking, getting vaccinated, and washing one’s hands that one can most effectively prevent COVID-19.
Use warm water and soap when washing your hands. Lather up the soap for 20 seconds and wash in between your fingers and as far under your nails as you can reach. Then rinse your hands and dry them.
Hand sanitizer works in a pinch if you can’t use soap and water, such as on a plane, but it’s not as effective.
Earlier, we talked about the efficacy rate of COVID-19 vaccines.
While the effectiveness of these vaccines drops in seniors regardless of the brand of vaccine they select, it’s still better to have some protection against COVID than none!
Take A Direct Flight
A direct flight will get you to your destination sooner, as it has no layovers.
You’ll spend less time around people and avoid being exposed to new groups of people as you step off the plane.
The risk of COVID-19 is higher in those 65 and older, and they can develop more severe illness. Even still, a senior can get on a plane if they wish. They should be vaccinated and boosted, however, wash their hands when they can, and wear a mask.
Read the best travel tips for seniors next.