COVID-19: How great is the risk of infection on public transport?

The chance of getting infected with COVID-19 on public transport depends a lot on where you sit and how long you travel. At the highest risk are the people who are closest to an infected person than those who are further away, according to a new study.

Participants in the study were thousands of passengers traveling on China’s high-speed trains called G-trains. The results suggest that the transmission rate of the infection to nearby passengers varied between 0% and around 10%.

The seat and the duration of the journey are important

How big is the chance of getting infected with COVID-19 on public transport

“Our study shows that while there is an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission on trains, the seat and travel time can make a big difference in whether the disease is passed on,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Shengjie Lai, a research fellow at the University of Southampton in the UK. “The results suggest that during the COVID-19 epidemic it is important to reduce passenger density and encourage personal hygiene, the use of face masks and possibly temperature measurement before boarding”.

In fact, other recent studies from around the world suggest that public transportation may pose a relatively low risk of infection if passengers wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

In Paris, for example, public health officials found that of the 386 COVID-19 clusters that emerged in the city between May and mid-July, none were connected to public transportation, according to The New York Times. Similar results were seen in both Tokyo and parts of Austria, the Times reported.

How great is the risk of infection in public transport?

In the new study, published July 29 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the researchers analyzed information from passengers traveling on G-trains between mid-December 2019 and late February 2020, which is the period from before it began the spread of COVID-19 until the peak of the outbreak in China.

The researchers identified more than 2,300 passengers who they referred to as “index patients” who contracted COVID-19 within 14 days of their train journey, and more than 72,000 passengers who sat near those index patients. To be more precise – within three rows (in width) and five seats (in length) from the index patients.

A total of 234 of the 72,000 passengers sitting nearby fell ill with a COVID-19 infection in connection with their train journey. This means that the average “rate of infection” – or the percentage of people in the overall group who tested positive – was around 0.32%.

Those who sat next to an infected person had the highest risk of contracting COVID-19, with an average infection rate of 3.5%.

For those who sat in the same row of seats but not necessarily next to the infected person, the average infection rate was 1.5%. That’s about ten times the rate of infection in people who were just a row or two behind the infected person, the study found.

The duration of the journey also influenced the risk of infection – on average, the infection rate increased by 0.15% for every hour that a person traveled with an infected passenger, and for people sitting next to an infected person, the infection rate increased by 1 every hour , 3%.

Public transport poses a relatively low risk

Those who are closest to an infected person are at greatest risk

But after the infected person got off the train, the risk of infection seemed small for those sitting in the same seat. Of the 1,342 people who sat in a seat previously occupied by an infected person, only one later contracted the disease, which translates into an infection rate of just 0.075%, according to CTV News.

The researchers concluded that to prevent the spread of COVID-19, passengers should sit at least two seats in the same row and limit travel time to 3 hours.

“We hope that this study can help educate authorities around the world about measures to protect against the virus and reduce its spread,” said study co-author Andy Tatem, professor of spatial demography and epidemiology at the University of Southampton .

However, the authors also found that their study had limitations. For example, the researchers were unable to prove that the 234 passengers on the train were definitely infected with the virus, despite public health officials determining that this was the most likely source of their infection, CTV News reported. Also, the study does not provide any information on whether passengers wore personal protective equipment such as masks, the authors said.

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