COVID-19: Public transit is safer if certain conditions are met

Several case studies show that public transit poses a lower risk of coronavirus transmission, but experts warned riders still need to heed certain precautions.

Public transit was among the many activities the pandemic put on a halt since it started to spread worldwide. The scientific community also warned of crowded and enclosed spaces—which, by design, includes public utility vehicles—as one of the primary sources of coronavirus outbreaks during the pandemic’s earlier weeks.

Now, public transportations are operational. But because of the scientific community’s advice before, commuters doubt: is it safe to use public transit during a pandemic?

Public transit poses a lower risk of virus transmission

The risk of getting infected while riding the subway or city buses depends on various factors. But recently, experts learned that coronavirus transmission in public transportations is comparably lower compared to what they initially assumed.

In Paris, contact tracers listed a total of 150 outbreaks between the first week of May and June and noticed that none of the listed outbreaks is linked to the city’s public transit. In Austria, contact tracers recorded a total of 355 outbreaks from April through May, and none were transit-related.

The same case transpired in Japan as well, as per a report published in ScienceMag.

According to virologist and public health expert Hitoshi Oshitani of Tohoku University, the majority of the outbreaks occurred in bars, karaoke rooms, gyms, and other similar establishments that are usually crowded and physical distancing is challenging to enforce. But none were traced back to public vehicles.

COVID-19: Public transit is safer if certain conditions are met

Japanese researcher Makoto Tsubokura, who uses the Computational Fluid Dynamics lab at Kobe University, also conducted a test following the possible risk of getting infected when riding a train. Per his study, he found out that subways are less risky compared to other closed and crowded spaces, especially if public transits are well ventilated.

Level of risk depends on various factors

Separately, the risk level of public transit poses is dependent on several factors, as per experts’ observation.

The duration of commute, for instance, plays a significant role. In China’s high-speed trains, a group of researchers concluded that the infection rate when riding the train was around 0.32% on average. However, the rate increased by 0.15% for every additional hour the passengers were onboard.

Proximity affects the probability of transmission too. In the same study, researchers found that sitting in the same row with a COVID-19 positive passenger has an infection rate of 1.5% while sitting next to a sick person yields a 3.5% infection. It, however, did not mention whether the passengers were wearing face masks or not.

Still, the said infection rates are lower than in other indoor and crowded settings like churches and households.

Epediomiliogists and other experts in the medical field also noted that the studies do not mean that public vehicles do not pose a risk. And emphasized that it is still wise to comply with suggested precautions—such as wearing face masks and physical distancing—to minimize the risk of getting infected.

“When you have universal adherence and compliance with mask use, that is when you are majorly reducing the risk for transmitting the virus,” Melissa Perry, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and leading epidemiologist at George Washington University, told Scientific American.

Images courtesy of Jack Hong/Shutterstock, Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

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