Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Map of direct flights from Wuhan with circles showing numbers of travelers

A few days ago 60 Minutes displayed a map of flights outbound from Wuhan, China. A Canadian company called BlueDot tracked direct flights and number of travelers to project the spread of COVID-19 three months ago. The sophistication of the real-time display is amazing. But the relationship of international flight and viruses is almost a hundred years old.

Like air travel, viral research is a twentieth-century phenomenon. While bacteria were studied in the late 1800s, the first virus known to cause disease in humans, yellow fever, wasn’t identified until 1927. The practice of quarantining ships to prevent disease was well established, but international air travel presented a new challenge. Unlike ships, airlines in the 1920s and 30s traveled in short hops, landing frequently to change crews and refuel. Each stop was a potential site of infection.

A 1929 article called “Death Rides the International Airlines” describes one public health officer’s vision of what safety precautions of the future might look like: “The quarantine officer of the future might fly out and board the plane or dirigible in mid-air, via a rope ladder. Should he find evidence of a quarantinable disease aboard, arrangements might be made for keeping the airship in quarantine at 500 to 1,000 feet above the earth, or sending it to a special quarantine detention field.”

The public health official was using the logic of a model already in place, whereby a quarantine officer would approach a freighter in a small boat, board, and check it out before it could dock and unload.

We are still addressing the challenge of contagion in the sky. The Centers of Disease Control has issued interim guidelines for international air travel at https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/air/managing-sick-travelers/ncov-airlines.html . They have sanitation guidelines for everything from the crew to the passengers to the airplane itself, updated March 4, 2020. Of course these guidelines will change as we learn more.

Or, then again, maybe not.

This morning I received an email from American Airlines titled: “We’re working to protect your well-being when you travel with us.” describing all the new sanitation procedures they have put in place for my safety. I’m glad they’re thinking about this, because I plan to travel when the skies are open again. I even watched the video. One scene looked alot like a 1940 disinfection photo in my files.

It’s an ongoing process. It has been for nearly a hundred years.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“The Computer Algorithm that was among the first to detect the coronavirus outbreak.” 60 Minutes. April 27, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-outbreak-computer-algorithm-artificial-intelligence/

“Airlines, hotels to implement ‘electrostatic spraying’ vs. coronavirus,” Times-Union, April 28, 2020.https://www.timesunion.com/travel/article/Airlines-hotels-cleaning-guns-15229928.php

How Coronavirus Will Forever Change the Way We Fly: From air fares to destinations to cabin layouts, things may look very different once we start traveling again. Bloomberg, April 24, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-04-24/coronavirus-travel-covid-19-will-change-airlines-and-how-we-fly

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the events of these days from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

Additional Sources:

Jane Stafford, “Death Rides the International Airlines,” The Science News-Letter 16 (Nov. 1929), 301.

C. L. Williams, “Disinsectization of Aircraft,” Public Health Reports (1896-1970), Vol. 55, No. 23 (June 7, 1940), p. 7.

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