Why you should stop circulating that study about COVID in poop from airplanes (a.k.a. please stop screwing up the messaging about COVID safety)

By | January 7, 2023

Several media outlets recently wrote about a study where scientists tested the waste from 29 flights arriving at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The study reported that traces of COVID were found in waste from 28 of the 29 flights, and the 29th was still being tested.

To be blunt, this is a bad study, it doesn’t prove anything about whether it is or isn’t safe to fly, you should stop circulating it, and you should stop and think about the impact that catastrophizing flying is having on COVID being taken seriously (or not) by the public.

Here’s why this study tells us literally nothing about whether you will get COVID if you fly on an airplane:

  • People can continue to shed COVID in their waste for long after they are contagious [ref]. COVID in wastewater tells us literally nothing about whether anyone on the plane is contagious.
  • All they tested for was the presence of COVID, not for how much there was. Your odds of getting COVID on a flight if 50 people are contagious are a lot higher than if only one is!
  • We already know there will be people contagious with COVID on most flights with a substantial number of passengers. This is the inevitable outcome of how most countries have chosen to deal with COVID. We didn’t need this study to tell us that.

Here’s what we know about COVID and airplanes:

  • If you don’t wear a mask, you’re risking getting sick, just as you would by going unmasked in a train, bus, restaurant, movie theater, workplace, school, or any other indoor public space.
  • The longer the flight, the higher the risk.
  • A well-fitted N95 or better mask greatly reduces (but does not eliminate) the risk. A fit-tested P100 mask reduces the risk even more and is especially worth considering for long-haul flights.
  • On flights so long that you have to take off your mask to eat or drink, you could get COVID in the short time your mask is off.
  • Airlines trying to convince you that flying is “safe” because of how well airplane cabin air is filtered are lying. Airplane cabins are not significantly more or less safe than any other public environment.

The Malaysia study doesn’t prove or disprove any of these things. It is entirely useless at answering the question or how likely you are to get COVID on a flight.

This matters because when you cite a study as proof that flying is dangerous that does not actually prove that flying is dangerous, that’s disinformation. The “urgency of normal” COVID deniers can then point at that disinformation, and say, “This is disinformation!” And they’ll be right. That will discredit not just what you have to say about flying, but everything you have to say about the risks of COVID.

The pandemic is absolutely riddled with examples of well-meaning people saying things that aren’t true because they think it will convince people to do the right thing, only to have it backfire spectacularly. Some examples:

  • The U.S. government told us at the start of the pandemic that cloth masks were good enough and we didn’t need N95s. They knew that wasn’t true, but they lied because there was a shortage of N95 masks and they wanted to prioritize getting them to front-line healthcare workers. This created an opening for COVID deniers to spread FUD about masking which continues, to this day, to sow confusion even among people who are trying to follow the science.
  • The U.S. government (federal, state, and local) has repeatedly refused to recommend or mandate masking, instead insisting that vaccination is sufficient, despite ample evidence that vaccination does not stop infection and even “mild” cases in vaccinated people can cause long COVID. They apparently thought that if they pitched vaccination as an easy protection against COVID, most people would get vaccinated. Instead, vaccination uptake is terrible—less than a third of eligible people have a current booster—and the majority of the population is getting COVID repeatedly, increasing their risk of permanent disability with every infection.

Using bad science to promote a good idea always backfires. Always. Backfires. Please stop it.

Here’s what we know about COVID safety:

  • Vaccination helps a lot, but it isn’t enough.
  • You should be wearing an N95 mask or better indoors in public.
  • The things you can’t do in a mask indoors in public (e.g., restaurants, bars) aren’t safe to do right now.
  • The things you can do in a mask indoors in public aren’t entirely safe, but it is a reasonable choice to do them, depending on your personal comfort level.
  • It is reasonable for your personal comfort level to be influenced by how many people around you are wearing masks; the more there are, the safer it is.
  • It’s generally safe to go unmasked outdoors, unless you’re in close proximity to an unmasked individual for an extended period of time, in which case you should probably wear a mask.
  • Each time you get COVID, you increase your risk of developing a permanent, lifelong disability.
  • Each time you get COVID, you damage your immune system and make yourself more susceptible to other diseases, and when you get them they will be more severe.
  • Wearing a good mask in public protects you from all those other diseases in addition to COVID.
  • Our healthcare system is overwhelmed because of COVID, and that isn’t likely to change soon, so if you do get severely ill with COVID or some other disease, you may not be able to get the care you need.

We need to focus on these. Catastrophizing about flying in particular distracts from these and ruins the messaging. It’s a bad idea and we should stop doing it.

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