Doctor calls packed flight scarier than treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

University of San Francisco scientist Ethan Weiss posted a photo of a packed United Airlines flight on Twitter.
University of San Francisco scientist Ethan Weiss posted a photo of a packed United Airlines flight on Twitter. @ethanjweiss/Twitter

While people across the globe continue to physically distance as a means of stopping the spread of COVID-19, one United Airlines flight allegedly didn’t.

Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist flying from New Jersey to San Francisco on Saturday, posted a photo on Twitter showing the packed cabin, full of people wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves.

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“I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days?” he wrote. “Every seat full on this 737.”

He followed up with another tweet with more details about the flight, writing that people on his flight were “scared” and “shocked,” and he had no idea why most of them were travelling, apart from the other 24 nurses and doctors he’d been working in New York City with.

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Weiss shared a photo of an April 30 email he received from the airline, stating that they’d be ensuring physical distancing en route with middle seats left vacant for space. This didn’t happen, per Weiss’s photo.

He added that he won’t be flying again for a long time.

A member of his 25-person volunteer group, trauma surgeon Dr. Rebecca Plevin, also tweeted about this incident, writing: “Hey @United: I appreciate you getting us home from New York, but I’d prefer there to be some level of #socialdistancing.”

The airline has since responded to the backlash, telling ABC News that the flight was only 85 per cent full with 22 seats left empty. Most of its flights, they added, have been 50 per cent full.

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“We’ve overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing,” United Airlines said in a statement to Fox News.

“Our flight to San Francisco had an additional 25 medical professionals on board who were flying for free to volunteer their time in New York — we’ve provided complimentary flights for more than 1,000 doctors and nurses in the past few weeks alone — and all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy.”

The airline’s website says customers will be unable to book seats next to each other, and these measures will be in place until May 31, when they will reevaluate and make any necessary changes.

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Coronavirus around the world: May 11, 2020 – May 11, 2020

United Airlines isn’t the only airline claiming to enforce physical distancing during flights.

On Monday, a Twitter user shared a photo of a packed flight from New York City to Washington, D.C. The person tagged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to point out that there was “no social distancing.”

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Much like United Airlines, however, an American Airlines spokesperson said the photo doesn’t show the 25 unoccupied seats, and told NBC News that the flight wasn’t at full capacity.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.