A team led by Illinois State University’s Dr. Olcay Akman is urging authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to include N95 masks as a requirement for those traveling by airplane.

Unlike homemade masks and surgical masks, N95s are actually classified as respirators that can filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles. Due to shortages of the N95 masks worldwide, organizations such as the CDC have recommended them solely for health-care workers and first responders.

If we have limited resources of N95 masks, we need to think about where they will most effectively slow the spread of the virus. — Olcay Akman

Professor Akman and a team of fellow biomathematicians say those on airplanes should be added to the list. “Airports and airplanes are environments where individuals are forced to breathe recycled air, increasing their exposure,” said Akman, who heads up the Intercollegiate Biomathematics Alliance (IBA). Housed at Illinois State, the IBA oversees two research biomathematics journals and one of the largest biomathematics research conferences in the world.

In the article which appears in Letters in Biomathematics, Akman and the team used mathematical modeling to show the increased danger to those in environments using recycled air. The work reflects new findings that show COVID-19 is “lighter” than previously thought. “Doctors know more about treating COVID than they did back in March,” said Akman, who added health officials once thought Coronavirus was spread by droplets alone. “Now we know it is spread by aerosols, which are lighter than droplets and spread faster, like the common flu. This knowledge impacts our understanding of the infection rate in relation to how it is spread.”

With the increased threat of a potentially deadly aerosol-spreading virus, Akman said a key to combatting the virus is focusing on air travel and other places where the public are using recycled air. “If we have limited resources of N95 masks, we need to think about where they will most effectively slow the spread of the virus,” he said. The magazine Nature also published similar findings with data analysis.

Projections and modeling in outbreaks and pandemics are an expertise of Akman. His work has covered Ebola, and recently predicted deaths from the number of people infected with COVID-19 more accurately than the CDC. While the agency predicted 140,000 deaths by August, Akman’s models showed 170,000 deaths. The CDC ultimately reported 174,000 deaths by August. Akman’s modeling is now projecting 300,000 deaths by year’s end.