*Story updated November 2020.
Even in the best of times, travel poses health challenges. It disrupts your routine and sleep schedule. It presents unhealthy food choices and exposes you to germs. All of this may alter your immune system. Throw COVID-19 into the mix and it reads like a high-risk itinerary.
Does this mean you have to stay home or forego family gatherings this year?
“Until we have effective treatments and a vaccine, or we see COVID-19 cases decrease significantly, I prefer people stay close to home,” says Dr. Maria Luisa Alcaide, F.I.D.S.A., director of the Infectious Diseases Research Unit at the University of Miami Health System. Dr. Alcaide is a Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, an honor given to leaders in the field. “Family reunions have resulted in multiple outbreaks in the past few months. This may be more of a concern in cold places where gatherings cannot occur outdoors or in ventilated areas, especially when the number of new cases continues to increase.”
So, holiday travel and get-togethers look different in the age of the coronavirus, but just how different?
Plan and act accordingly
Wallet, credit card, tickets, phone. Your “Don’t Leave Home without It” list should include another item. “Getting the flu shot is more important than ever this year and should be done as soon as possible. Everyone should get a flu shot regardless of age,” Dr. Alcaide says.
As for family reunions, Dr. Alcaide suggests avoiding large indoor gatherings unless everyone wears a mask and can maintain social distancing at all times. This becomes difficult if people are drinking or eating. Minimizing time with others will also help; the more time people spend together, the higher the chances are of not adhering to masking and social distance rules.
Before you get too carried away with holiday plans, “Evaluate your risk factors and those of the people you’re traveling with or visiting. Most people experience mild symptoms and recover at home. People age 65 and older and those with conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart or lung disease have a much greater risk of getting very sick if they become infected with COVID-19,” says Dr. Alcaide.
Likewise, consider potential destinations carefully. “You don’t want to catch the coronavirus hundreds or thousands of miles away from your regular doctor. Dealing with a different hospital and potential out-of-network charges only increase stress. And if you’re asymptomatic or in the early stages of the virus, you risk spreading it to other communities.”
What about testing before travel?
Now that rapid tests are more available, will getting tested before departure help you avoid these pitfalls? “Rapid tests are more accurate if symptoms are present or if used to diagnose a past infection. Although a negative rapid test result helps prevent spread and avoids having infected people traveling, a negative rapid test does not always exclude (the presence of) infection. Negative results can also occur during the incubation period. The decision to lift safety measures (social distancing, masks, hand washing) should not be based on a rapid test result,” Dr. Alcaide says. You could also become infected while traveling. In that case, you will need to self-quarantine and might not be able to return to work or school when you get home.
When contemplating travel during a pandemic, Dr. Alcaide recommends checking the CDC COVID Data Tracker map and COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination map for disease prevalence and travel advisories. “Some destinations may require proof of testing or that you self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Some borders and certain airplane routes may be closed.” Check your destination’s health department website and with your airlines for current information.
If you develop signs of illness before leaving, no matter how minor, call your doctor. Your immune system must function well before venturing out. You don’t want to spread COVID-19 or any other illness to other areas and infect other people.
As part of your planning, ask about cancellation policies for hotels or flights. You may want to purchase trip insurance if it covers health-related cancellations.
So, you’ve decided to travel. Now what?
Dr. Alcaide advises domestic over international travel and if possible, driving to your destination. While many major cruise lines suspended operations until 2021, dreaming of a future cruise might not be the best idea, at least for now. “Cruises are environments where infections spread rapidly. That was the case with COVID-19. If there’s an outbreak during a cruise, there’s a risk of not being able to get off the boat.”
Dr. Alcaide is a little less wary of airports and planes. “They are strengthening hygiene and cleaning processes and masks are required.” Even so, airports are notoriously crowded during the holidays. It’s easier to avoid crowds on road trips. To further lower your exposure, bring your own food or order takeout. If you’re traveling for vacation, choose a less-crowded destination where you’ll spend more time outside. Avoid standing in lines or mingling in crowds. If you stay at a hotel or resort, call ahead to inquire about their health and safety protocols. Many have ramped up cleaning practices.
Traveling for pleasure lets us leave everyday concerns behind. This year, however, safety guidelines must follow you wherever you go. Maintain social distancing of six feet or further, wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer when necessary, wear a mask in public and when with others who are not in your household, and avoid touching your face. Pack plenty of masks and disinfectant wipes to clean high-touch surfaces. “There is
some evidence that UV-C germicidal light wands effectively kill bacteria on surfaces, but for commonly touched surfaces, disinfectant wipes or regular cleaning products are highly effective.” If you’re flying, Dr. Alcaide advises wiping down armrests, tray tables, touch screens, and seat belt buckles with a disinfectant wipe, keeping your mask on all the time, and maintaining social distancing. Getting through security is another matter. There’s no avoiding it, but you may minimize your time in line by applying for a TSA PreCheck pass.
Taking care of your health, near or far from home, is the best way to protect yourself against the virus. Get sufficient sleep, eat healthy foods, limit or avoid alcohol, exercise regularly, and manage stress. (Click here for more healthy travel tips.)
What to do if you get sick while traveling
You’ve taken all the precautions. What happens if you develop a suspicious sniffle or cough? “Don’t panic, but don’t procrastinate. Take your temperature – a thermometer should be in your travel kit. If it’s normal or your symptoms are mild, call the nearest urgent care center or walk-in clinic. Ask to speak with a health care provider through a telemedicine appointment. If that’s not available, mask up, and go to the office. The provider will ask a series of questions and may test you for the virus. If you have a high fever, cough, and shortness of breath, go to the nearest hospital ER.”
Until you get your test results, you will need to self-quarantine, as will your travel partners. If you test positive, self-quarantine for 14 days, even if it means not making it to your destination because you’re stuck in a hotel room. Whether you recover on your own or need hospitalization depends on your age, underlying medical conditions, and severity of symptoms.
All of these precautions take the fun out of holiday plans, don’t they?
“Like other viruses, COVID-19 is probably here to stay. However, we will gradually return to a less restrictive lifestyle. Like other academic medical institutions, COVID-19 vaccine and treatment trials are ongoing at the University of Miami. Tests to facilitate rapid diagnosis are also being developed. We will conquer or at least control it as we have with many other illnesses,” Dr. Alcaide says.
Fortunately, Miami-Dade County offers plenty of staycation options. “Evidence does not suggest that the virus is transmitted via water. You’re safe at the beach or boating, but only if you stay at least six feet apart from others, in or out of the water or waiting in a line,” says Dr. Alcaide. Be strategic as you staycation. Go early and leave before it’s crowded. And try to avoid public restrooms, concession stands, water fountains, crowded water parks, marinas, and public pools.”
Dr. Alcaide says there is a tendency to forget precautions and take more risks when we travel or participate in holiday celebrations. “We must not forget that this virus is highly contagious and capable of causing severe disease and death. And we still don’t have an effective treatment or vaccine.”
There’s no denying the emotional lift we get from travel and holiday gatherings. If you do scale back on travel and celebrations this year, your mind can roam even if your body stays home. Use this time to plan a future excursion. There’s no harm and no risk in being an armchair traveler.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.
COVID-19 is mainly spread by virus droplets launched into the air by someone sneezing, coughing, talking, even breathing. As these particles shed, they can hang out in the air for hours. That's why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests people practice social distancing. The farther away you are from the infection source, the fewer of these droplets you will encounter. Read more.