Overkill Or Prudence? No One Knows


I went skydiving last weekend for the first time in a little over three months. More on that further down the page. First, some comments on how people are handling—or not handling—the risk of flying in the age of COVID-19. I wish I could say I’ve seen and can point to someone, some group, some school or some business who has it wired and whose lead we should all follow.

Nobody has it wired.

In this week’s video, you can hear what three flight schools of varying sizes are doing. I intentionally made this a long video because I think an airing of all the details and particulars is important at a time when nothing is certain and what we think we know changes from week to week, if not day to day. Personally, I continue to make decisions based on what numerical understanding of risk I can calculate. As Harvard’s Rob Shmerling points out in the video, this is probably an illusion at best, but I draw some satisfaction from the attempt.

The state of Indiana did a well-designed and well-regarded survey to determine what we should all most want to know: disease prevalence. They used a combination of random test-positive and seroprevalence antibody testing and determined about 2.8 percent of the state’s population had been exposed to COVID-19. A similar study in New York state, a hard-hit region, estimated nearly 14 percent. No such data exists for Florida, so I’m free to offer my own estimate which I peg between 3 and 5 percent. For my age group, the probability of hospitalization after infection is a little over one in 12. In my estimation, these are not trivial risks and are certainly serious enough to merit precautionary steps. This disease is deadly enough; the precise numbers don’t matter.

Some—but not all—flight schools are making the same calculation in the same atmosphere of uncertainty. Hence the masks, the hand sanitizer, the distancing and the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, all done without any metric that any of it does a bit of good. It’s an open-loop system sans feedback.

I apply this test: Would flight schools, customers, instructors and individuals be better off not doing any of this merely because it can’t be proven to be effective and many have the gnawing suspicion that this whole pandemic thing is overrated? My answer to that is no for the same reason I wouldn’t play Russian roulette with a 50-chamber revolver. What’s the payout against the effort of the mitigation? Not getting sick for the bother of donning a mask or wiping down a throttle or door handle seems, at best, a minor inconvenience if it saves someone from an infection. As I said in a previous blog, SARS-CoV-2 will be around for a while and we can’t hide from it forever. We’ll have to learn to live with it. We’re learning.

A friend recently told me he went into a store and got the fish-eye from the staff, which he took to be because he wasn’t wearing a mask. His reasoning was that a person who isn’t sick can’t infect anyone else, so why the mask? Like so many, he had not considered the known characteristic of SARS-CoV-2 that causes contagiousness of people who are asymptomatic. That’s why the masks. To confuse it further, this week, the World Health Organization now says asymptomatic transmission may be rare. I await the second-day story on that before passing judgment. But really, if the mask if a courtesy, that’s reason enough to wear it where warranted.

The airlines are struggling with this issue and will continue to struggle until they realize they’re eventually going to have to walk the talk. They have openly touted requiring passengers to wear masks and shown impressive videos of deep cleaning cabins. Yet the mask policies aren’t being enforced because crews are apparently being told not to enforce them. I have little sympathy for these companies because they want to have it both ways; entice the pax to fly, but give them a wink on the mask. I do have sympathy for the flight attendants who must navigate this miasma at what might be considerable (and increasing) risk to their own health. I’m on the fence about getting into an airline cabin until this is sorted out. Occupying an airline seat for several hours may increase infection risk. One thing mask discipline does, in my view, is give people a little more confidence that risk is at least reduced. That someone is at least trying.

Last weekend, I did board a Twin Otter with maybe 16 others for a 12-minute ride to altitude. Most of us had some kind of mask; a few did not. One big difference is that the door can be kept open for most of the ride and we made sure our team was at the back of the airplane next to the open door and that we exited first. That’s as close to being outside while still being in an airplane as I can imagine. I have a tight-fitting full-face helmet with a shield. I fitted it with a multi-layer HEPA filter and kept the shield down for the entire ride. When I got down, I doused the thing with alcohol, including my gloves.

Overkill? Probably. But the effort of doing this is so minor against the potential gain, I can’t see not doing it or doing less. The alternative is to return to April cowering in the house. That doesn’t appeal, either. Next, I’m thinking about a haircut.

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  1. You are looking at the wrong metrics even if there were any validity to them. Random testing on 4,611 participants (in the Indiana study) might be a sufficient number if the tests results were accurate and those tested were truly selected at random.
    According to a World Health Organization report, my situation at age 75 places me in the 8% mortality category which translates to one death in 13 patients. Not a risk I am willing to take. At age 60 I would be in the one-in-28 bracket which might be tempting. I think that one must assume that they will become infected and weigh the impact on them and their families on that basis.

  2. Overkill or Prudence….Interesting choice of words Paul. Every country that put into strict practice, masking, social distancing, lock-downs, in tandem with widespread testing including multiple testing over time followed with contact tracing, has had a remarkable reduction in spread which automatically lowers the death rate. It appears that the “overkill” efforts ( by American cultural standards) caused a reduction in deaths, which one might term as “overkill” efforts resulting in “underkill” of it’s citizenry. The added bonus has been a faster return to a sustainable economic recovery with better assurances of that it remain sustainable because you have a population willing to follow what works…even when it is inconvenient.

    Want an even more evidence that “overkill” ( by American cultural standards) results in “underkill” of the population? Look at Japan. They admit they have dropped the ball regarding widespread testing. However, they have no problem masking. They have returned to opening up their economy while having one of the densest population numbers per square mile on the planet including a very crowded transportation system. They have an attitude about looking out for each other that is considerably different from the American “rugged individualism” perspective. Cooperation is second nature to them for greater societal good. Simple masking has been demonstrated, in real time, in Thailand, S Korea, China, Vietnam, and Japan to be highly effective dealing with Covid-19 transmission along with as much as it is possible in such crowded quarters, social distancing, practicing hand washing hygiene, and staying home when sick.

    But for some reason, millions of people demonstrating societal cooperation by the simplest “prudent” exercise of masking when in close quarters publicly is deemed “overkill” by citizens of the country that now has the highest death numbers and numbers of known infections. New Zealand has no known Covid-19 infections today because they were “prudent” in exercising “overkill”. None of these multiple examples of practicing “overkill” have any superior health system, no vaccine, no miracle drug. All they have done is acted with “prudence” as Paul did when jumping out of a perfectly good airplane ( had to say that over-worn cliche when in the discussion of “prudence”) with several other equally cooperatively “prudent ” cohorts.

    Personally, I don’t need to come up with some sort of numerical risk assessment ratio to gain some sort of statistical number to determine my chances of getting Covid-19. Nor do I need for some politician or CDC guru to tell me one day yes, another day no, with lines like “studies have been inconclusive” about ____________ ( fill in the blanks) regarding “flattening the curve” of Covid-19. No, all I gotta do is what millions of other on this blue orb has already done dealing with the same disease, at the same time, with the same fears, with no more of a therapeutic hope nor vaccine viability than I currently have. That is masking when shopping or out and about, staying home if sick, keeping my distance from others masked or not, washing my hands, not feeling violated if I come up with Covid-19 about contact tracing, wiping down surfaces I have touched including stuff in my airplane, being as cooperative as I can with what has been demonstrated to work. To me, that is not “overkill”. Instead, that is “prudence”. I appreciate that there are others, like Paul, who are demonstrating “prudence” by “overkill”.

    • I agree with you, Jim. We now have months more real-world data, a macro-level experiment, in which there are winners (NZ, SK, Japan, etc.) and losers (the US, Brazil, Sweden, etc.) and many countries with outcomes in between. The winners used and use masks, social distancing (sometimes to extreme shutdown), hand washing, surface wiping – real blunt actions. The losers didn’t and don’t. It’s pretty basic and pretty clear.

      • Thank you jeff B. for putting things in a different yet true perspective. Up until reading your reply, I’m still seeing this great nation divided from this pandemic. Listing ‘losers’ (in comparison to nations addressing this pandemic right) to include america is succinct yet still a dismal reflection of how we as a nation are still struggling for a clear path.

  3. The COVID-19 became a bewildering threat after December 2019 developing into a global highly contagious viral runaway. Since then, 188 countries have reported 7 million cases, from which 3.3 million people have partially or fully recovered and more than 406,000 people have died from the virus. I choose PRUDENCE.

    • Individual execution of “prudence” is… well, prudent.

      COMPELLED execution of “prudence” is…

      Here in the PeoplesRepublik of Massachusetts, the GOVERNMENT has determined that it’s okay for Target stores to be open – but NOT for Macy’s to be open. Their “logic?” Target sells groceries; Macy’s does not. Apparently, the proximity of mayonaise renders Covid less contagious. Who knew?

      I’m a pretty prudent guy. But I question the idea that collective prudence required the destruction of the world’s economy, the suspension of constitutional rights, and the surrender of business decision-making, to a cabal of glorified student-council/hall-monotor know-littles.

      As a conservative Libertarian sort, I guess that’s the “overkill” part of me.

  4. One of the many aspects of the flying community that I like is exactly the attitude that we are all in this together. As a population we know that the risks of flying can be mitigated by thoughtful adherence to not only the the regulations (that, as they say, are written with the blood of others) but to common standards of behavior where we watch each others backs, because it just might be you who gets hit by random chance and are put into a life-threatening situation. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I see more and more in the popular culture the celebration of selfishness, as if giving up a particular right or freedom, even if it’s temporary, is the first step to a totalitarian nanny state. Despite appearances to the contrary, we’re all adults here and adults look at the greater whole for the advancement of the greater good, not because they are forced to, but because they choose to. Sticking to some simple rules of conduct for the common good is frankly not a big imposition.
    I’m looking forward to some more dual time in that Cub. I’ll follow what that the instructor asks in order for us both to feel comfortable. If I don’t agree, I won’t fly. I’m free to choose.

    • Glad for your freedom to choose.
      In Massachusetts, you have the right to choose to riot, loot, and commit arson – but NOT the right to choose to worship with more than nine other people.

      Nanny State, indeed.

  5. Paul, to your point that “… … the World Health Organization now says asymptomatic transmission may be rare. I await the second-day story on that before passing judgment.” : the “second-day story on that” is the WHO meant to say “pre-symptomatic transmission” and that they were in error for saying “asymptomatic transmission”. So nothing has changed in that regard.

    • That’s rather curious. So if you would exhibit symptoms but you don’t yet have symptoms, you’re likely not spreading the virus? But if you simply don’t have any symptoms, you may still be spreading it? I would say that actually changes the message quite a bit. In any case, the story of covid is one that has been constantly changing before we even get to the end, which just shows how little about it we actually know. Or could it be that the virus is changing right in front of us, and that the one in circulation now is not the same one that originally started all of this?

    • This is even more confusing. I read two stories on this this morning, neither of which clarifies the difference between asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic. Both mean no symptoms present. The Chinese study found a 14 percent incidence of asymptomatic transmission. Not huge, but not rare either.

      I await further clarification.

      • The only use of those terms that makes sense to me is as overlapping categories:
        asymptomatic — no symptoms and no information on subsequent health
        pre-symptomatic — subsequently found to be positive, contact occurred before symptoms confirmed.

        I’ll wait to see a followup story with some more facts.

        Your long video was very helpful.

      • The second-day story I read was that the WHO researchers had distinguished between “asymptomatic” meaning “never showed meaningful symptoms even after a long period” and “presymptomatic” meaning “developed symptoms later”. Apparently when they contract-traced people who turned up positive in testing, and who didn’t subsequently develop symptoms, they didn’t find much evidence those people had infected anyone else. I don’t know if the study had corrected for false positive tests.

  6. All I know for sure is that I find wearing a mask to be very uncomfortable (and after more than a few minutes it tends to make me claustrophobic too), and it’s only going to get worse as the temperature and humidity rises throughout summer. So that along with the uncertainty of how effective (if at all) these cloth masks are at reducing the spread of the virus, I simply avoid going anywhere or doing anything that requires a mask. Flying is supposed to be fun, and for me, it’s just not fun with a mask.

    As for the sanitation efforts flight schools are taking, they’re passive, not very intrusive, and other than taking a little bit of time, have no downsides. Though I would also say instead of the regular sanitizing, it might just be easier to wear gloves instead. And until there is a vaccine or effective treatment available, physical distancing (where available) is still prudent to be following.

    • To me, the gloves make little sense. Medical personal wear them not to protect themselves, but for patient-to-patient protection. You can’t get the virus through your hands; this much we know. So frequent hand washing is the defense against contaminated hands. I’d keep hand sanitizer in the airplane before using gloves and maybe even cleaning the airplane itself.

      Fomite transmission is thought to be really rare. Which is why I don’t wipe down the mail or the Amazon boxes. But I wash my hands a lot. And stay out of crowds.

  7. How can the pilot in the title photo to this article be safely piloting that pressurized airplane with that mask on. What happens if the plane has a rapid depressurization? Masks don’t seal with beards, so what makes anyone think wearing that mask is any different. Not that I agree with the beard issue, but I find it hypocritical for FAA inspectors to tell companies male pilots in pressurized planes can’t have a beard but then look the other way on wearing masks in cockpit! My company has left that decision up to crews and after boarding passengers and entering my cockpit the masks come off. Not one crew member has complained.

    I think all of the various riots that have occurred have demonstrated how a lot of people think of masks and social distancing restrictions. The next two weeks should determine if all those restrictions have had any effect.

    I also have been at one of the drop zones I jump at this past weekend. The only persons I saw with masks on was the manager/owner and manifest persons. Very few skydivers were wearing any face covering on the airplane and the airplane was taking full loads up. (12 skydivers on a Kodak) Tandems were also being done. The jump pilot was not wearing one either. I would have jumped myself but am still dealing with a right elbow injury that makes it difficult to throw out my pilot chute. My wife did jump twice.

    • No disrespect here but you must be aware that symptoms of covid-19 may not reveal itself until 14 days after exposure. Every public outing is a calculated risk to everyone, mask or not, being exposed to anyone unknowingly carrying this virus. Your jump was uneventful as another joyous way to resume as close to going about daily routines as america tries to deal with this pandemic. Without a method of testing to ensure everyone piled into the jump plane is absolutely free of this virus, no one can assume they’re ‘clean’. Perhaps when a vaccine is found, another chapter in world health to reduce this virus to zero will eliminate fear and loathing to this invisible germ.

      I’ve not flown in many years and thinking about stepping back into a cockpit but helicopters are a bit more expensive to rent. Add to this, a lousy contagion and uncertainty of how a different ‘preflight’ may or may not include disinfection and masks tends to turn some off from frustration.

      I sincerely hope you and fellow jumpers can continue to leave from perfectly good airplanes as this new normal is adapted to.

  8. Fair warning to those getting tiredly and sloppy. ”The top U.S. infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, delivered a grim assessment of the devastation wrought around the world by the coronavirus, describing Covid-19 on Tuesday as his “worst nightmare” … “In a period of four months, it has devastated the whole world,” Dr. Fauci told biotech executives during a conference held by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. “And it isn’t over yet.” NYT June 9, 2020

  9. Paul’s comment about flight attendants’ involuntary exposure to COVID risk is spot on. Those unmasked pax seem to subscribe to a social ethic that excuses behavior which can harm others as long as the harm is not imminent. I know this to be factually correct because I was exactly that person until the Army got hold of me and drilled the concept of shared sacrifice into my thick and immature skull – perhaps it’s time to bring back the draft.

    • Not all of the unmasked people are foregoing masks because of a “social ethic”. Keep in mind that the rule specifically says mask wearing is mandatory “unless contrary to health”. Some people have ailments that makes it very difficult to breath through a mask, or they simply are unable to wear one for an extended period.

      There is also very little scientific information on the effectiveness of these masks, and it may turn out that they have almost no effect (or maybe even a negative effect) on virus transmission. As with much of this virus, we simply don’t know. The only thing we do know for sure is that washing hands, not touching the face, and maintaining physical distancing (and the 6-foot rule is really just a bare minimum, not a guarantee) is the only thing that does have a positive effect in slowing down transmission.

      • Yes there’s a small minority who can’t wear a mask. But not half, as I often see when I go to the store. It’s not accurate to say we don’t know enough to know whether masks work — there’s a ton of data showing that masks protect against transmission of virtually all sorts of viruses. The fact that this is a new virus with less known about it is not the same as saying “we just don’t know”. And this idea that masks could “possibly” have an opposite effect is dangerous pseudo-science for which there is absolutely no basis. Anything is possible but there’s no basis for that.

        And for most of us if we just go with the idea, it’s not really difficult to get used to wearing one — if you have trouble, look at a different type, you might find one you’re comfortable with. Remember we’re not only protecting ourselves but our loved ones young and old, and everyone else around us by taking these precautions.

        And funny thing… I *like* my mask(s). My sister who is good with a sewing machine made some for me and family out of fun fabric and I feel safer going out with it. I have an old Hawaiian shirt with WWII vintage planes on it that I’ve been thinking about having her make one out of but it’s still a useable shirt… tough decision! What I’m getting at is, if you embrace the idea and get creative you might even have fun with it.

        • The scientific experts are saying that there isn’t enough data about the effectiveness of these cloth masks. N95 masks, definitely. Cloth masks, not so much. And until there is sufficient data showing that cloth masks have a overall net positive effect over time (and not just with a brand new mask in the first couple of minutes, but after an hour or two of use), we don’t know what effect they’re having.

          • “And until there is sufficient data showing that cloth masks have a overall net positive effect over time (and not just with a brand new mask in the first couple of minutes, but after an hour or two of use), we don’t know what effect they’re having.”

            Meaning what, ‘Exactly’? You stopped short on revealing your subsequent assumption. Please explain.

          • I think there’s sufficient correlative data from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan all of whom endorsed widespread mask use. Japan had no lockdowns, Korea minimal and both have a fraction of the infection rates of the U.S. Increasingly masks are seen as a factor. I don’t need to post the links. A shallow search will deliver all the research on this.

            The reality is we’ve got no other defenses other than distancing and shutdowns. The latter is untenable long term. Some people won’t wear masks as a personal statement, similar to anti-vaxxing being a personal statement in response to a tiny risk of a bad outcome, no matter what the science says.

            The downside of wearing one is so trivial I don’t get the resistance. Unless it’s shown that they cause infection, which seems absurd.

    • It is never time to reintroduce involuntary servitude. It’s morally wrong to force young men to protect everyone else’s security and wealth so that you don’t have to offer the kind of pay, benefits, service norms and missions that would attract enough volunteers.

  10. As a follow up to this report I’d like to hear from students and flight schools of their concerns, if any, about future hiring by the airlines. Almost every airline says they have more pilots than they need, and many state they might need to furlough some come October. If hiring slows down to a trickle for two or three years will people still try to pursue a flying career? I hope lack of students isn’t a second issue that flight schools have to deal with.

  11. Every large passenger and cargo aircraft I have flown has airflow on the main deck that comes from overhead (vents and gaspers), travels downward vertically past the people and exits out the floor vents. Designed this way to remove odors from the people. It also flushes any virus droplets down and out, not toward others. The recycled air is passed through filters that remove moisture droplets. There is little danger of passing droplets from one person to another unless one is standing over the other and sneezes. Flight attendants breath air from above the pax level so are safe from contaminated pax. Handling dinnerware is not so risk free. Flight deck airflow is similar and can usually be configured to provide an “air curtain” between the pilots. Mask would only be useful during ground ops to include entry and exit. People with no symptoms don’t cough and sneeze so emit few if any particles that would only go a short distance. Its the people with runny noises that sneeze and constantly blow their noses that one needs to worry about.

    • Though one thing that isn’t certain yet is whether pre/a-symptomatic people are spreading the virus. That means, no coughing or sneezing, just normal breathing. Until that question is answered, it’s quite possible that flight attendants are at risk.

  12. On airline travel. As the gravity assisted covid riddled droplets, being heavier than air, settle on aircraft seats and floors, pangs of somewhat controllable anxiety hit my inners. Do not touch, I murmur. A real concern. All this reminds me of the tenseness while on patrols in the jungles of Vietnam. Gotta remain wide-eyed wearing surgical masks, steel pots, and combat boots. Or the covid’s gonna getcha! On second thought, I rather be there, then, than here, now. Excuse my grammar.

    On flight schools. I think they develop their own close quarter, pre-a-symptomatic (new word) Covid-19 WX. Flight Instructors and students may run wild or maybe not. Instructors who have other incomes may stay away, especially old guys like me. Others continue instructing. That’s what I’m seeing. Some years ago, flight schools in the USA numbered around 4000. Large and small. Then after 9/11 many schools closed. I think the total was reduced to 2000. I would think that flight schools will shrink again, as the ongoing health and economic threat is turning all upside down. But, there is hope, the customer base will also shrink. But not disappear. So some will adjust, streamline, keep the ball rolling. Oh! Anyone interested in two C172s?