Doctor: Risk of contracting coronavirus while traveling is ‘very low’

BOSTON — A Massachusetts doctor monitoring the status of the new deadly Chinese virus says that, while anxieties might be running high, the public should understand the risk for catching the disease is not imminent while on a plane.

While you should always take the necessary precautions when going outside -- especially now, at the height of the flu season - Dr. Paul Biddinger says the risk for contracting coronavirus while traveling is very low.

“We certainly understand why people are anxious,” said Biddinger. “This is a new infection, and in the medical and public health community, I think we’re understandably concerned because we don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Biddinger is the chief of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital where there are currently 10 special isolation rooms ready to treat any future patients with the virus. Staff have been trained to put on and take off special protective gear.

“Airplanes have more than 20 to 30 air exchanges per hour,” said Dr. Biddinger. “That’s actually larger than any of our isolation rooms in a hospital, and that air is filtered. So just because someone is sick on your airplane does definitely not mean that you’re going to get sick.”

When it comes to surgical masks, Biddinger says they’re not a public health recommendation. The best way to protect yourself is to follow simple hygiene practices, such as always washing your hands, covering your face when you cough and wiping down any surfaces you will eat on or use.

“The simple surgical masks that you see a lot right now on news footage are proved to decrease disease transmission by those who are infected, but in terms of protecting yourself, there’s never been good studies that have proved that they decrease your risk of becoming infected,” said Biddinger.

That doesn’t go to say, however, that it’s impossible to catch the disease. People should be on the lookout for everyday mistakes that could transmit germs and bacteria, such as touching dirty surfaces and then touching your face.

On Wednesday afternoon, emergency crews responded to a Hainan Airlines flight from Beijing that arrived at Logan with a sick passenger on board. The passenger was evaluated at the scene but refused to be taken to the hospital since their symptoms did not match coronavirus criteria.