Not that long ago, COVID-19 was on the decline, and lots of us optimistically started planning the vacations we had put off for more than a year. We booked our flights, reserved our beach houses, and looked forward to traveling like we did in the "Before Times."
Then, the delta variant surged. A document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the variant as contagious as chickenpox, and it’s changing the way we think about where we can go and what we can do safely. In an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 74% of cases have been in people who are vaccinated. And with the delta variant, vaccinated people could be as contagious as unvaccinated people. These developments led to changes in masking recommendations — late last month, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas where COVID-19 transmission is substantial or high.
How do these changes affect your travel plans? “It’s not where we thought we would be, perhaps even as recently as a month ago, where we thought that everything was going to get better and better. We’re in this complicated time right now where people have to make different kinds of risk calculations based on who they are, who’s in their social network and where they’re going,” said Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, told TODAY.
“For people who are not vaccinated, I think they should be extremely careful. If they haven’t gotten sick with COVID yet, I think it’s highly likely that they will get sick with COVID because delta is so contagious, and most people have trouble wearing masks all the time in high-risk settings and avoiding people who might unknowingly (be contagious),” Justman said. “I would say if you’ve been waiting and trying to decide whether to get vaccinated, I think this is the time to do it, especially if you want to travel.”
This is a different virus, and it acts differently. The recommendations for how to protect yourself, your family and others are going to keep changing over time as we learn more about this virus and as the virus continues to change.
Dr. Noreen Hynes
And even vaccinated people need to be cautious in the face of the delta variant. “Not only is the delta variant more transmissible, it could cause more serious disease,” Dr. Noreen Hynes, director of the Geographic Medicine Center of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told TODAY. “This is not the virus we saw in the United States in March and April 2020. This is a different virus, and it acts differently. The recommendations for how to protect yourself, your family and others are going to keep changing over time as we learn more about this virus and as the virus continues to change.”
It’s crucial to take precautions against infection if you’re older, immunocompromised, or traveling with or living with children under age 12 since younger children don’t yet qualify for vaccinations.
Before we get into the guidance for travel, let’s state what should be obvious: “If you have symptoms of COVID or if you believe you’ve been exposed to COVID, you really should postpone the trip and not expose other people to your symptoms,” Justman said.
That said, here are the experts’ recommendations for traveling more safely.
How to choose where you go on your vacation
If it’s possible, consider how widespread COVID-19 is in the area you plan to visit. “If you’re trying to choose between three or four different places, it would make sense to go to a place that has less COVID,” Justman said.
For travel within the United States, you can filter the CDC’s information based on state, county, or metro area. You can also look at the website for the health department in the place you plan to visit. And you can check with the World Health Organization (WHO) for international information. “You can see whether case rates and hospitalization rates are increasing or decreasing and make your decision,” Hynes said.
But keep in mind that things change quickly with COVID-19. If you’re planning a trip for next week, you can look at what’s happening with transmission rates in your possible destinations. If you’re planning a trip three months from now, it’s hard to have any confidence in what the COVID-19 situation will be.
How to get where you’re going
“Flying and driving are modes of transportation that can be handled safely,” Justman said. If you’re driving, your riskiest places are rest stops. She recommends that you:
- Wear your mask at rest stops.
- Move quickly in and out of the indoor space.
- Try not to stand in lines or crowds.
If you’re flying, keep your distance from other people as much as possible and wear your mask. You may want to double-mask with an N95 mask plus a surgical mask when you’re in a crowded area, like a security checkpoint.
On the plane, think about how crowded it is and who you’re sitting next to. “Then make some additional decisions about double masking,” Justman said. “Some people can tolerate it and don’t find it to be a hardship. If you are somebody who is completely miserable wearing a double mask, then you have to at least wear one very well-fitting mask.”
The air on planes is generally well circulated and filtered, so your risk mainly comes from people who are sitting in your row or close by. Hynes said you might want to carry a face shield that you can put on along with your mask if someone near you is coughing or sneezing.
If you travel on buses or trains, when possible, keep the seat next to you empty if you don’t have a family member sitting there.
How to decide where to eat
When you travel, you’re probably going to eat at restaurants at least some of the time. Eating outdoors is a great option. “The virus moves along out of ventilated spaces and doesn’t like sunlight,” Hynes said, so you’re safer eating outdoors. Takeout and picnics are good choices.
If you must eat indoors, choose a restaurant with tables spaced far apart. “I would not be comfortable eating indoors in a restaurant where the tables are all tightly packed together,” Justman said.
What to consider about where to stay
Whether you’re staying in a hotel or renting a home, you don’t need to worry too much about COVID-19 being transmitted from the previous occupants or cleaning staff. That’s because a few hours usually pass after other people have left and the room or home has been cleaned.
“The major exposure that spreads COVID is face-to-face contact,” Justman said. You’re not likely to pick up a COVID-19 infection from door knobs or faucets in your lodging, though you can clean surfaces with disinfectant wipes if it gives you peace of mind.
How to deal with crowds
At the beach, you can generally stay far enough away from other people to keep yourself safe. But you’ll need to be careful with crowded pools, concerts or sporting events. “Think about your vaccination status, who’s in your social network, who’s at home and who might be unvaccinated, including children under 12. Make your decisions accordingly,” Justman said. “You have to decide how important it is to go to this event and what kinds of risks you’re looking at to decide if it’s worth it.”
Hynes recommends avoiding crowds: “Getting together in large crowds is not a good idea even if you are vaccinated. You still want to practice social distancing.”
What to keep in mind if you’re traveling internationally
If your vacation will take you outside the United States, you’ll need to make sure you have all the documentation you need to enter your destination and return to the United States. Countries have different rules about who can enter and whether you need proof of immunization or proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Hynes suggests checking the U.S. consulate or the ministry of health for the country you’ll be visiting to find information on what’s required. You might also want to see a travel medicine specialist to discuss your risk.
The bottom line
Vaccines give you a lot of defense against COVID-19. “The vaccines do a great job at protecting us from severe illness, hospitalization and death, even with delta,” Justman said. “They might not protect quite as well against milder illness, but that’s not what they were designed to do. We still have really good protection against what counts. That is very reassuring and can help reduce some of the anxiety many of us are having as we make travel plans.”
And along with vaccinations, masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds can help make it safer to travel during the COVID-19 delta surge. “You shouldn’t give up your life. You need to think, ‘What can I do that’s reasonable for me to do?’” Hynes said.