Dr. Joseph Fair — a virologist and epidemiologist who has spent decades studying deadly viruses such as Ebola — was wearing a mask and gloves on the April 24 plane trip to New Orleans but fell critically ill soon after.
“I had a mask on. I had gloves on. I did my normal wipes routine, everything like that. But, you know, obviously you can still get it through your eyes,” Fair, 42, told NBC’s Today show in an interview from his hospital bed.
He said the airline did not abide by social distancing measures — which he believes lead to him catching the virus after droplets touched his eyes. He didn’t reveal the name of the airline he flew or where he was coming from.
“You know, that’s one of the three known routes of getting this infection that we don’t pay a lot of attention to. We tend to focus on the nose and mouth because that’s the most common route,” he said.
“Droplets landing on your eyes are just as infectious and of course I wasn’t wearing goggles on the flight.”
Four days after the flight, Fair said he became sick with severe flu-like symptoms that spiraled into “a kind of walking pneumonia,” landing him in a hospital.
He said it felt like he could only breathe 25 percent of the air he tried to inhale but was given oxygen instead of being intubated. Over the next few days, he improved dramatically, he said.
Fair tested negative for COVID-19, however, the virus likely left his system by the time he was tested he said, adding that coronavirus tests are still “imperfect.”
Similar cases of contracting the illness through the eyes have been reported during the pandemic, prompting Fair to advise people to avoid crowded airplanes — even with protective gear.
“Instinctively I probably should have gotten off the flight when I saw that. But they had us packed in like sardines and definitely not ideal, you know, when you’re trying to combat a pandemic and trying to slow it down,” he said.
He added, “You don’t want to have [the virus.] That’s all I can tell you.”