Here’s how to manage the risks of travel

With Memorial Day approaching and many people in the Bay Area stepping up their summer travel plans, COVID continues to pose a threat, with highly transmissible omicron variants driving the latest surge.

As of Wednesday, the United States had a coronavirus case rate of 33 new daily cases per 100,000 people, tied with the peak of the delta surge late last summer. Hospitalizations have increased by 30% in the past 14 days, although still well below the winter peak.

How do the experts say you should factor this into your summer vacation image?

While many people may be understandably tired of COVID measures, we’re clearly in a wave right now, said John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of vaccinology and infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

And that means that while most people don’t need to cross travel dates off their calendars, it’s wise to keep the risks of COVID-19 in mind and plan accordingly to make trips as smooth and safe as possible, he said.

“People can travel now – people should consider traveling now – but I think they have to understand that they are increasing their risk of exposure and they have to be very good at knowing how to do whatever they can to mitigate the risks,” he said.

Here’s an overview of the risks and expert advice on how to protect yourself while traveling and while in destination.

Preparation and packaging

Experts say travelers should wear high-quality masks (N95, KN95 and KF94) at the airport and on the plane.

Bronte Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Masks may no longer be needed in most places in the United States, but they should be one of the main items on your packing list to minimize the risk of COVID, experts say.

According to connoisseurs.

Along with bringing plenty of good quality masks, Swartzberg advised packing COVID test kits and an oximeter, just in case.

UCSF infectious disease expert Peter Chin-Hong also advised carrying a “COVID kit” with painkillers, a thermometer and decongestants.

You should also have a plan for getting medical attention if you need it, especially if you are traveling overseas. Research medical facilities near your destination, as well as available access to COVID medications – including Paxlovid antiviral treatment if you are eligible.

While it makes sense for experts to try and get Paxlovid as a precaution before travelling, they say that’s not possible now with the limited supplies reserved for those who are genuinely ill.

“If you start getting sicker, who do you go to to help you? says Swartzberg. “Is there a hospital near you? A doctor that the hotel can call? Don’t wait until you need care to look for it. Don’t wait until you’re sick to ask for Paxlovid.

Chin-Hong also recommended testing before departure — which is actually required for some types of travel (see below) — and three to five days after returning from your trip.

If you get sick before your trip — and not just with COVID — you might want to consider canceling or rebooking, Chin-Hong said. (Now more than ever, it makes sense to purchase travel insurance or redeemable tickets.)

You should also keep an eye out for any new variants of concern, and if one starts circulating, delay your plans “until we know a bit more about it,” he added.

Air transport risks and security strategies

Travelers should keep in mind that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is actually higher at airports than on airplanes, said UCSF's Peter Chin-Hong.

Travelers should keep in mind that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is actually higher at airports than on airplanes, said UCSF’s Peter Chin-Hong.

Constanza Hevia H./Special at The Chronicle

The United States and many other parts of the world have eased COVID restrictions for travelers, and the federal government is no longer enforcing mask mandates on airplanes and other public transportation, including hubs like airports. So it’s up to individual travelers if they want the added protection of wearing a mask.

Experts have advised masking up – Swartzberg adding that your mask should “fit you really well” and be comfortable enough for you to keep on for an entire flight.

Travelers should keep in mind that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is actually higher at airports than on planes, Chin-Hong said.

Air travel is safe, he said, due to the “excellent” ventilation during the flight which is “comparable to hospital ventilation”.

“But going to the airport, queuing for security, eating at the food court, and congregating at the gate and jetway before the plane activates maximum air exchange can present some risks,” he wrote in an email.

The risk is still highest for travelers over the age of 65 or unboosted, or anyone with compromised immune systems, he said.

These are among the reasons Swartzberg said it’s important to be up to date on vaccinations and boosters, which he called the “backstop” for COVID mitigation.

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends that all people age 5 and older receive a booster at least five months after completing their primary vaccine series, and adults age 50 and older and anyone age 12 and older who is immunocompromised receive a second booster dose. (U.S. children ages 5-11 were recently approved for Pfizer boosters.)

Stay safe at your destination

Travelers should keep in mind that not all places are equal when it comes to coronavirus risk – and the situation is constantly changing.

“Places vary in COVID numbers, so it depends on where you’re heading, what’s the risk,” Chin-Hong said.

Arriving passengers should have a plan for getting to and from the airport, and tell any family or friends they plan to visit about their COVID mitigation plan, Swartzberg said.

When visiting your destination, it’s best to plan outdoor activities, wear a mask in crowded indoor areas and consider testing ahead of time if you’re planning large gatherings, experts said.

What if you got sick?

Even with precautions, you could still be infected with the coronavirus while traveling.

If this happens, experts say, do the same thing you would do at home: self-isolate and see a doctor if necessary.

Anyone who tests positive must self-isolate for at least five days and only go out if they test negative after that time, Chin-Hong said. It’s fine to take walks outside if you’re masked and not with many people, he added.

All international travelers to the United States, including returning travelers, are still needed show a negative COVID test before boarding their flights no more than a day before coming to the United States. For that reason, Chin-Hong said, it’s important to take “extra precautions” while abroad – and remember that you can get stuck for a while if you test positive.

If you are traveling internationally, be sure to familiarize yourself with the protocols at your destination. In some countries, if you test positive, you may need to self-quarantine in a government facility – at your own expense. In others, you can isolate yourself. Requirements for leaving isolation may also vary.

Kellie Hwang is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @KellieHwang

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