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Sharp Health News

Is it safe to fly this holiday season?

Oct. 29, 2020

Man in mask on airplane using hand sanitizer
When the U.S. Travel Association looked back on 2019, they found that nearly 1.9 billion people took a trip for leisure purposes. This year, with COVID-19 affecting not only the travel industry, but also every aspect of our lives, the number of Americans willing and able to go on holiday has been drastically reduced.

“We know that travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” says Dr. David Spees, director of travel clinics for Sharp Rees-Stealy. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

However, there are some people who are ready to once again dip their toes into the travel waters. Whether they are burnt out by COVID-19 precautions, enticed by abundant travel deals, or simply feel that special family events and the holidays cannot be missed, many are making plans to fly the friendly skies.

“We are all anxious to resume what we consider normal activities, including travel,” says Beth Catton, RN, MSN, vice president of Global Patient Services and Out of Network Departments at Sharp HealthCare. “Our challenge is to embrace a ‘new normal’ that includes supporting our own health needs and being considerate of the health needs of others during this pandemic and flu season.”

What airlines are doing for your health
According to Catton, while the actual part of air travel that involves sitting very close to strangers in a closed space for several hours does not initially sound like a safe option for traveling — and there are no guarantees on safety during this pandemic — the air quality on commercial airliners has proven to be quite good. The air volume in the cabin is completely exchanged every two to four minutes, and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters — similar to those used in hospital settings — have been in use since the 1990s on most commercial flights.

Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now “strongly recommends” that face coverings become mandatory for all passengers and crew members on flights. According to the agency, face masks have been proven to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 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 employees who frequently come into close contact with hundreds of people throughout each day.

The ‘new normal’ precautions to take
Nevertheless, travelers must consider the other parts of their trip when determining their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other illnesses. These include spending time in security lines, airport terminals and other locations where you are in close contact with people from outside your household and surfaces that are frequently touched.

Dr. Spees and Catton both agree there are precautions you should take if you do decide to travel.

“You might want to check the status of the virus at your destination and the requirements for entry before booking travel,” says Dr. Spees. “You should also try to travel with an airline that has staggered seating or leaves the middle seats empty.”

They join the CDC in also recommending you:
  • Wear a face covering that covers your mouth and nose when in public settings.
  • Consider wearing a face shield or goggles to protect your eyes as a possible source of entry for the virus.
  • Avoid close contact; maintain a 6-foot distance from those who are not in your immediate household.
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
  • If possible, arrange to sit in the front of the plane and board as late as possible so that you walk past the least number of passengers and fewer people walk past you.
“While en route, consider carrying several disposable masks that you are able to toss if they become wet or soiled, and pack additional cloth masks that can be washed and reused during the course of your trip,” Catton says. “Airlines are allowing hand sanitizer to be part of your carry-on materials, so have some in your pack or purse and another container in your suitcase for when soap and water may not be available.”

The level of risk certain trips entail
No matter how cautious you are, it is important to recognize that there are risks in traveling during the pandemic. “The more people who an individual interacts with and the longer the interactions last, the higher the potential risk of COVID-19 infection and spreading,” Catton says.

She also points out that the more cases of COVID-19 there are at your travel destination, the higher the likelihood you may be infected while traveling, and subsequently, spread the virus to others when you return home. If you plan to attend gatherings or events once you reach your destination, the size should be based upon state and local safety laws and regulations.

The CDC provides the following guidance about the risk of COVID-19 spreading at events and gatherings:

Lowest Risk
Virtual activities, events and gatherings.

More Risk
Smaller outdoor and in-person gatherings where individuals from different households remain spaced at least 6 feet apart, come from the same local area, wear masks and do not share objects.

Higher Risk
Medium-sized gatherings that allow individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and have attendees coming from outside of the local area.

Highest Risk
Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult to maintain spacing of at least 6 feet apart and have attendees traveling from outside of the local area.

“It is important to recognize that you may have been exposed to COVID-19 on your travels,” Dr. Spees says. “Even if you feel well and do not have any symptoms, you can be contagious and spread the virus to others for 14 days after you were exposed. Continue to practice all precautions: wear face masks around others, wash your hands often, maintain a distance of 6 feet when with people from outside your household, and stay home if you feel unwell.”

Dr. Spees also strongly recommends that you do not travel if you are at high risk for serious COVID-19 illness, have any cold or flu-like symptoms, or have had recent exposure to groups of people, especially if some were not wearing masks, nor observing physical distancing. 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 over.

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