The dilemma: to fly or not to fly

My wife is currently in Longmont, Colorado. She is scheduled to fly back home in 10 days, which is the problem. Look at the ratfuckery our administration is up to with coronavirus recommendations. They just don’t care what the CDC says, and I trust the CDC far more than I do Trump/Pence.

The White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus, a federal official told The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention submitted the plan as a way of trying to control the virus, but White House officials ordered the air travel recommendation be removed, said the official who had direct knowledge of the plan. Trump administration officials have since suggested certain people should consider not traveling, but have stopped short of the stronger guidance sought by the CDC.

So now Mary is considering not flying, and instead renting a car to drive back — it’s 800+ miles and 12 hours of driving. Yikes. I have concerns about that, too.

  • Maybe the CDC recommendations don’t apply to her. She’s a healthy, active 62 year old (yes, I’m a cradle-robber, and I’m not ashamed to admit it). Which also means she’s capable of the drive.
  • If she has to rent the car and return it to an airport, she’s still going to be exposed to all those diseased world travelers.
  • You may not have noticed, but this time of year has unpredictable weather. She could have to drive through a blizzard, an ice storm, or a flood.
  • She flew there, and could already be infected. She might turn into a zombie on the drive back.

I am not helped by the dithering of the incompetents in the White House. I am also not helped by the vague recommendations of the CDC; I don’t consider either of us to be elderly or physically fragile in our ability to respond to disease…although I mentioned that a high school acquaintance of ours just lost her husband to COVID-19, so maybe we are.

Indecision can have terrible consequences, and the Republicans have so thoroughly politicized what ought to be scientific decision-making that now I’m being indecisive.


  1. says

    Could be worse. I have a friend stuck in Vietnam right now. Her husband flew back three weeks ago, but she’s having trouble getting a flight back now.

  2. Anja says

    Can she take an Amtrak train for at least part of the journey? Kinda a compromise. Some exposure to the public, but safer than a car trip in bad weather. It’s also a fun way to see the countryside.

  3. Erp says

    The California Zephyr (Amtrak) has stops in Denver and also Omaha and Des Moines. Still a long drive after. I have a friend who takes the Zephyr sometimes (California to somewhere in the midwest and back) and enjoys it. Far less sardine like than an airplane though slower.

  4. ANB says

    I would think the long drive in your part of the country has inherently more risks at this time of year than catching Covid-19 (and even if then, having a bad flu reaction, at the worst).

  5. cinnamon says

    How confident is she about not touching her head without first sanitizing her hands for n length of time?

    Airports will have more surfaces she might touch. Renting a car involves fewer surfaces, but more opportunities to come into contact with them. (Eg, door handles, radio buttons, seat-buckles.)

    Twelve hours is a long time to be vigilant. Personally, I‘d choose the flight, especially if it’s short enough to skip entering the restroom and I had no checked luggage.

  6. ajbjasus says

    I’d follow you’re own judgement. With your training it will be just as informed as anything an official body will come up with. Even if they were any good they can’t be definitive.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    -Can your wife share the car with someone else going the same way (most of the way)? That way, they can take turns behind the wheel and avoid getting exhausted.
    -If many avoid flying, the risk of getting the virus through recycled cabin air is reduced. But the biggest safety factor is the statistical risk of road accidents. I would not recommend long car drives in winter, not unless you have someone to share the driving with.

  8. tacitus says

    Drivers or passengers in cars or light trucks faced a fatality risk of 7.3 per billion passenger-miles: “A person who was in a motor vehicle for 30 miles every day for a year faced a fatality risk of about 1 in 12,500. Relative to mainline trains, buses and commercial aviation the risk was 17, 67, and 112 times greater, respectively.”

    So, to put it bluntly, the question you have to consider is whether the risks of catching and then dying from the coronavirus by flying home outweigh the far greater intrinsic risks of driving home. I’m not sure they are.

    The odds are excellent she’ll get home safely either way, but that doesn’t mean driving home is necessarily the right decision, even during the current crisis.

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’m older than you, but I would risk the plane flight. But then, from the reports I’ve seen, I have three things that can mitigate the risk. The first is I’ve never smoked. Smokers and ex-smokers appear to be at greater risk for both infection and severity of the disease. The second is that I have a supply of the ethanol hand sanitizer which I can transfer to the bottles allowed for carry-on. The third is that I have some N95 masks and have been trained in their use, and have worn them for prolonged periods on my old job.
    Not sure how much of that would apply to your wife.

  10. says

    Had she been in Washington, I would have suggested going to Vancouver and ride VIA rail to Ontario (in a private one bed cabin). It would be a short jaunt home from there.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    it’s 800+ miles and 12 hours of driving.

    That’s 800+ miles of nothing. Traffic is not a concern. Weather might be, but you only need to know 1-2 days ahead.
    But consider this: Can she be guaranteed that the rental car does not come pre-infected?

  12. tacitus says

    That’s 800+ miles of nothing. Traffic is not a concern.

    55% of fatalities (and accidents in general) involve a single car striking a motionless object, like an animal straying across the road. Fatigue is also an issue on a long drive.

    Having thought about it some more since my previous post, I would most certainly still fly at this stage. The risk of picking up the virus on a single flight between two cities where there is no major outbreak cannot possibly be greater than risking injury on an 800 mile long drive home.

  13. says

    I have a fairly regular 700+ mile trip I make in visiting family. I always divide it up over two days, and pull over for a roughly twenty-minute nap (using my watch’s countdown timer) when I start getting tired/inattentive. I’d been using Airbnbs instead of motels for reasons of cheapness, but this whole pandemic thing will complicate that, no doubt. I’ve known people who made 14-hour drives by themselves, but their experience is not my experience.

  14. billseymour says

    Anja @2

    Can she take an Amtrak train for at least part of the journey?

    Although I enjoy riding Amtrak, I don’t think it would be my first choice if I were going to/from Morris.

    Train 6, the eastbound California Zephyr, departs Denver at 19:10, arrives Chicago at 14:30 the next day. Spend the night in Chicago (there’s a Holiday Inn just three blocks south of Union Station). Trains 7 and 27, the westbound Empire Builder (same physical train between Chicago and Spokane) departs Chicago at 14:15, arrives St. Paul at 22:03, St. Cloud at 00:24, Staples at 01:26, Detroit Lakes at 02:22, Fargo at 03:24. St. Cloud, Staples and Detroit Lakes are unstaffed stations (no checked baggage and no one to ask when the train will actually arrive), although they do have inside waiting rooms.

    Erp @3

    The California Zephyr … has stops in Denver and also Omaha and Des Moines.

    Arrive Omaha at 04:59, Osceola (just south of Des Moines) at 07:40. It might be interesting to try to get a rental car early in the morning. The good news (if this is the option) is that the Zephyr will almost certainly be late, perhaps hours late depending on the weather.

    Mary could get a sleeper on either or both of the trains and so not have to mingle much with strangers, although there’s still dinner in the diner on both trains, and breakfast and lunch on 6 if going all the way to Chicago. Sleeper fares on Amtrak are roughly comparable to flying business class (YMMV) and include meals. A less expensive “roomette” might be OK on 7 but would require sharing a toilet. There’s a first-class waiting area in Chicago called the Metropolitan Lounge. If I were actually sleeping in the room, I’d pop for a “bedroom” which gets you a private wash basin, toilet and shower.

  15. billseymour says

    I forgot to mention: if you’re in a sleeper on an Amtrak train, the car’s attendant will bring a meal to your room if you ask. An extra tip would be nice.

  16. katahdin says

    I strongly agree with those advising flying. BTW, I’m 78 and just flew from lexington to to St. Louis and back .

  17. jrkrideau says

    @ 11 Intransitive
    My thought too, but Denver seems a long way south. (I am always surprised where the US puts its states) No easy way to hit, say Calgary or Regina either.

    Given the likelihood of a lot of reduced volume of passengers both on airplanes and trains, both sound like a lot safer choice than driving 800 miles in dicey weather and with an unknown number of pit-stops on the way.

    CDC advice, especially for the frail elderly, makes a lot of sense but it ignores the relative risk of various transportation modes given that the travel is a given.

    Staying at home vs flying may be safer but driving vs flying may be more dangerous.

  18. publicola says

    With a rental, you could alcohol-wipe every surface before you get in, Then, take 2 or 3 days to drive home. Does she know anyone living along the route home that she could stay with? All in all, I would take my chances flying, but it’s a dice roll either way. Good luck.

  19. chrislawson says

    To be fair to the CDC, it is doing its best to give advice based on rapidly evolving knowledge. No excuse for the White House, though. I have little doubt that the only reason they squashed the CDC recommendation is because it might cause a brief financial hit for the airline industry and damn the public health consequences.

  20. chrislawson says


    Recycled cabin air should not be a problem. The air is pumped through HEFA filters and should carry no infectious particles (of course, that’s assuming the filters are properly maintained!).

    The contagion risk from flying is because (1) there are lots of surfaces to touch, (2) you’re crammed within cough radius of dozens of other travellers, and (3) you’re stuck in these conditions for hours.

  21. chrislawson says

    PZ — as a primary care doctor (but not an infectious diseases specialist or epidemiologist), the best advice I can give is that we truly don’t know enough. I’m not saying this to let Trump and his entourage of sociopaths off the hook, but nobody is able to give good decisive advice on this question. Not even the CDC. This is the CDC being precautionary in the light of uncertainty, which is certainly a good position for the CDC to take but it’s not based on positive evidence of risk from flying.

    In the same situation, I would probably take the flight and pack carry-on alcohol wipes, gloves and a few face masks (more to hand out to anyone with a cough rather than wear myself). The drive would carry less risk of coronavirus but more risk of crashing.

  22. hemidactylus says

    I am at the point of wondering how to mitigate this thing when I get it. From what I gathered last night (my own frantic speculation mixed with perhaps some truth)…young kids haven’t accumulated insults and injuries to their lungs and weather COVID-19 better though possibly spread it to us older folks with more frail lungs, cardiovascular systems, and diabetes. If the virus stays up top things go better. If it goes deeper not so good.

    Then would pneumonia vaccine help (or at least antibiotics if it goes there?). And does this thing if it goes deep induce a cytokine storm? What is known to mitigate those? Steroids seem tricky. Not drinking EtOH all of a sudden? Nicotine sans smoke?

  23. John Morales says

    Flying generally means spending time in a confined and pressurised space.

    So, is there a good tech to purify the plane’s air, as in recirculate and sterilise?
    Obs, one will still be getting nearby people’s exhalations (including farts), but if there’s anywhere where air purification can be a thing, surely pressurised airplanes must qualify.

  24. John Morales says


    Then would pneumonia vaccine help (or at least antibiotics if it goes there?).

    Possibly, because opportunistic secondary infections are a thing.

    OTOH, prophylactically administering antibiotics just in case turned out to be (and remains) a big mistake in the bigger picture — and yes, I know you wrote ‘vaccine’.

  25. hemidactylus says

    And is this nasty bug more than my old bad cold standby Claritin D can handle? Because my body just loves that speedball confusion of being sleepy then really amped out then sleepy rollercoaster ride if it puts me above the fray just enough. Clutching at straws here.

    Maybe my body would respond better to tax cuts and SBA measures. Tax cuts fix everything.

  26. dianne says

    @hemidactylus: It’s probably not cytokine storm that’s killing people with Covid or it would be the young people with the strongest immune systems who were dying. Saw one paper that suggested that lymphopenia was a poor prognostic sign. That might imply either pre-existing immunosuppression or immunosuppression by the virus as one cause of worse outcome.

  27. John Morales says

    hemidactylus, um, didn’t you write “when I get it”?

    A Stoic would suggest that, when you’ve worried about a future event as much as you can worry about it (you’ve fathomed it) then it’s perverse to keep worrying about it on an ongoing basis. When it eventuates, you will then proceed with your predetermined policy, and can then resume the worrying.

  28. wzrd1 says

    @27, some cases did sound very likely to be cytokine storms, the rest, not so much so.
    So, one can’t, as was suggested in some venues, just jump right in with immune modulation. Indeed, with lymphopenia, one might as well just shoot the patient!

    It’s still going to come down to clinical course, supportive therapy and what measures have thus far proven effective.
    I did ponder the efficacy of ACE blockers, but given the number of receptors on so many cells, the patient would have to be in full on 100% ACE blockade, with the lethal baggage that would attend that course.*

    For those questioning a “pre-infected car”, do consider that the virus isn’t exceptionally stable in the environment and is droplet spread, not fomite spread. Still, if one is having a shit fit over it, a quarter cup of household bleach in a gallon of water would trivially disinfect the steering wheel, instrument console controls, door hardware and mirror. If you’re worried that you’re going to catch it from the seat, I strongly suggest a remedial anatomy course!

    @PZ, current White House guidance is, handwashing galore, social distancing, as much travel by air as one can afford, as well as staying as long as is unaffordably possible at every hotel in the land, as business is down and to hell with anyone not Trump’s health.

    Noticed a ton of people hoarding, which made me chuckle. I’m infamous for keeping at least a month’s worth of durable food (dry goods and canned goods, as well as frozen food). That isn’t because I’m some madman prepper, I’m just lazy and do my bulk shopping once a month and pretty much pick up bread and milk a couple of times a week. Far simpler to do the quick in and out for quick turnover food items and a few odds and ends like coffee and peanut butter.

    *ACE receptors are what the virus is using for cellular entry. Didn’t look like pure ACE II, but possibly ACE I mediated as well, just so that the virus can be more of a pain in the ACE.

  29. says

    Not necessarily a safge idea to travel through Chicago by either plane or Amtrak right at this juncture. On the 4th, a woman took a flight to Chicago from Italy, landed at O’Hare, went to Union Station (the Amtrak terminal), and took a train to St. Louis, and then tested positive for coronavirus. While it’s unlikely that at this remove anybody will catch coronavirus from touching something she touched, nevertheless you must assume that some of the people who work at O’Hare and Union Station were exposed to it through her, which means that potentially at least they have then gone on to expose their fellow workers and later passengers. (And, of course, the woman presumably came into contact with a large number of other passengers, some of whom are presumably regular commuters. Union Station, at least, is a hub not just for Amtrak but for Metra, Chicago commuter rail.) It is possible — remotely so, but possible nevertheless — that within a few days we’ll see a huge outbreak of coronavirus in Chicago, and specifically in travelers.

  30. fathen says

    I’m 72. I drive that route all the time to see grandkids. Get a book on CD and enjoy.

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