With close to 60% of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the number of holiday travelers is expected to increase this year as people feel more comfortable venturing out. Not wanting to miss out on another holiday in the company of family and friends will also likely drive an increase in airline travelers.
Still, it is important to remember that the pandemic continues, with cases of COVID-19 — and the flu — anticipated to surge this winter.
“We know that travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” says Dr. Stephen Munday, a board-certified public health and occupational medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “If you are going to travel, you should be fully vaccinated.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 5 and older get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them, including family members who are not yet able to be vaccinated. And even if you are fully vaccinated and ready to fly the friendly skies, there are additional health precautions you should take to reduce the risk of acquiring or spreading illness.
Plan to wear a face mask
In August, the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) extended the face mask requirement “for individuals across all transportation networks throughout the United States, including at airports, onboard commercial aircraft, on over-the-road buses, and on commuter bus and rail systems through January 18, 2022.” And in California, masks must be worn in all indoor public settings from December 15, 2021, through January 15, 2022. The face mask requirements include everyone age 2 and older, as well as people who are fully vaccinated.
According to the CDC, face masks have been proven to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially when used widely by people in public settings. The practice especially helps protect those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, as well as airline and other travel industry employees who frequently come into close contact with hundreds of people every day.
Additional tips to stay safe include:
- If you must fly, try to take flights with the fewest stops or layovers.
- Frequently clean your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Stay at least 6 feet away from anyone who is not traveling with you.
- Sanitize frequently touched surfaces.
Follow the CDC’s travel health notices and domestic travel guidelines
For international travel, the CDC uses travel health notices to alert travelers to health threats. This four-level system advises on travel precautions one should take based on a destination’s COVID-19 level and an individual’s vaccination status. Advice ranges from Level 1, representing a low level of COVID-19 and urging travelers to be fully vaccinated, to Level 4, with a very high level of COVID-19 and recommending that travelers avoid the destination, even if vaccinated.
For domestic travel, the CDC recommends delaying travel until fully vaccinated, and offers a helpful guide for what do to do before, during and after travels. Currently, all air passengers, regardless of vaccination status, must show a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 1 day before travel to the U.S. The agency also provides a link to the level of community transmission of COVID-19 for each state and U.S. territory so people can check their destination’s COVID-19 situation before traveling and understand any local travel restrictions.
Continue to be mindful of gatherings
While the holidays evoke images of togetherness, the CDC continues to recommend avoiding large events and gatherings. Its website offers definitions of small and large gatherings and steps people can take to make gatherings safer. This includes gathering outdoors, wearing a face mask in indoor settings, and avoiding small, poorly ventilated spaces.
The CDC also has a page containing information on how to enjoy the holiday traditions with others while protecting your health — and the health of those you care about.
Know the risks
No matter how cautious you are, it is vital to understand that there are risks in traveling during a pandemic.
“It is important to recognize that you may get exposed to COVID-19 on your travels,” Dr. Munday says. Dr. Munday recommends travelers should get tested 3 to 5 days after travel, regardless of vaccination status. If unvaccinated, travelers should quarantine for at least 7 days after travel and receiving a negative test, or at least 10 days if not tested for COVID-19.
Dr. Munday also advises against travel if individuals are at high risk for serious COVID-19 illness, have any cold or flu-like symptoms, or have been exposed to COVID-19. People considered at high risk include those with certain health conditions, such as cancer, kidney disease, heart conditions, obesity, high blood pressure, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes, as well as people age 65 and older.