Airplane restrooms can be a health risk during a pandemic


HONOLULU (KHON2) — The state is preparing to launch its pre-travel test program on Oct. 15.

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As we start to see more flights open up, KHON2 wanted to know the health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Erlaine Bello, who is the hospital epidemiologist at the Queen’s Medical Center, says that there’s the general risk of being around a lot of people in closed spaces. But that risk can be largely mitigated if people wear their masks 100 percent of the time.

Living on an island requires us to travel a lot by plane.

Dr. Bello said that properly social distancing on an airplane can be difficult. While most airlines try to block the middle seat, it may not happen all the time. Another area of concern is the restrooms, which is a small enclosed space with high touch surfaces.

“You don’t know what the person who used it before was doing. If they sneezed or coughed, you’re walking into their enclosed space,” said Dr. Bello.

Dr. Bello says that while testing will help, there will be some who test negative and are still infected with the virus. Part of the reason has to do with the sensitivity of rapid tests like the one that uses saliva.

“The faster the tests are, the less sensitive they are. So you’re going to trade off some reliability for speed,” said Dr. Bello. “And there needs to be some kind of system put in place, either some period of quarantine or a second test to, I think, make this travel screening work.”

“We would feel safer if they had another test on arrival,” said Dr. Ed Desmond, who is the State Laboratories Division administrator.

He says there’s a rapid travel test being developed by OCEANIT locally. The tests would come in a pack of six so a traveler could be tested more than once. These tests will be tracked by a smartphone app.

“When they register at the airport and get the phone app, they are going to see what hotel they are staying at, who they are. And so if there’s a positive result, then we are going to know if they are sick and where they are,” said Dr. Desmond.

According to the CDC, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. But the CDC says sitting within six feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.

Dr. Bello suggests sitting as far away as you can from other travelers, wear your mask as much as possible during the entire trip and don’t forget the hand sanitizer.

“So that if you do have contact with high touch surfaces, you immediately hand sanitize. And again, not unmasking, you know, in the closed environment of the bathroom,” said Dr. Bello.

The CDC also says to consider how you get to and from the airport as public transportation and ridesharing can increase your chances of being exposed to the virus.

Here are the CDC recommendations.

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