Flying Patriot Express? Expect Random COVID-19 Testing Soon

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Passengers arrive at Yokota Air Base, Japan via the Patriot Express.
Passengers arrive at Yokota Air Base, Japan via the Patriot Express March 23, 2010. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Sean Martin)

Passengers flying on military-contracted commercial flights will soon be randomly tested for the novel coronavirus.

Starting next month, troops, their families and other qualifying patrons flying Patriot Express out of Seattle-Tacoma and Baltimore-Washington international airports will be subject to random testing. Stars and Stripes, citing an internal Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center advisory, was first to report the news.

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"The Department of Defense is aggressively working to keep passengers safe and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on Patriot Express flights by developing a plan for rapid, on-site testing," Air Mobility Command spokeswoman Capt. Nikki Ferrara said in a statement Thursday. AMC oversees the charter flights.

"This developing plan calls for COVID-19 testing at the airport prior to departure," Ferrara told Military.com. "On-site testing will give the traveler, the DoD and others increased confidence that passengers meet all requirements for safe travel into and out of allied countries."

Ferrara added that the purchase of COVID-19 testing equipment is underway. While the advisory states that testing is expected to begin Oct. 30, she said testing at departure airports in the continental U.S. is scheduled to begin in November.

Patriot Express flights are used by DoD personnel traveling between duty locations, including overseas. Qualifying veterans, retirees and federal employees are also given access to fly standby on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon debuted a new study, involving the two airliners most frequently used by Patriot Express -- the Boeing 767-300 and 777-200, that analyzed how airborne particles move through aircraft.

For roughly a week, researchers dispersed aerosol particles to test their distribution path, simulating it both in flight and on the ground. The scientists discovered that, because of sophisticated air particle filtration and ventilation systems onboard the aircraft, airborne particles within the cabin have a very short lifespan.

"The favorable results are attributable to a combination of the airframes' high air exchange rates, coupled with the high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration recirculation systems, and the downward airflow ventilation design, which results in rapid dilution and purging of the disseminated aerosol particles," Vice Adm. Dee L. Mewbourne, deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, said during a virtual roundtable with reporters Oct. 15.

TRANSCOM, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and Air Mobility Command spearheaded the study.

While more time spent on an aircraft raises a person's risk, even passengers on long-haul flights wouldn't be able to pick up a sufficient viral load to become sick under the test conditions, according to the study.

Passengers traveling aboard the 777 would need to spend at least "54 hours when sitting next to an index patient in the economy section," and more than 100 hours in the other cabins of both the 777 and the 767 to be exposed to an infectious dose, the study found.

Additionally, masks made a difference. Mannequins representing passengers were positioned throughout the aircraft, some wearing masks and some without, to simulate particle distribution, in particular mimicking exposure to another passenger coughing.

During the simulated cough tests, masked mannequins showed a "very, very large reduction in aerosol that would come out of [them], greater than 95% for most cases," said David Silcott of S3i, a DARPA partner. Silcott was also one of the authors of the report.

"It definitely showed the benefit of wearing a mask inflight from these tests," he said.

There are caveats to the findings: The scientists didn't try to simulate passengers moving about the cabin, switching seats or turning toward one another to have a conversation.

"While ... we're very encouraged by the results, that's part of the reason why we're making the results public, and sharing them with the scientific community so that that follow-on research can be done," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Pope, TRANSCOM operations directorate liaison for the airflow particle test.

The study heads next to a peer review before its findings can be submitted for a scientific journal.

TRANSCOM is examining the results, which could spur new travel policies or proposals, Pope said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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