LAURIE BARATTI OCTOBER 23, 2021
As we in the U.S. approach our second holiday season living amid COVID-19, things look a little different than they did this time last year.
Toward the end of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was pleading with Americans not to travel during the holidays and instead confine their celebrations to household members to help stem the virus’ spread. As evidenced by the post-holiday surge in infections we witnessed, not everyone heeded the agency’s advice.
At least this time around, over 57 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and, despite some disappointing setbacks attributable to the Delta variant, case counts are again declining.
The Washington Post spoke with five public health experts to get their advice on how you might safely travel this holiday season to see those family and friends you may have missed last year.
Advice For the Unvaccinated
As public health experts continue to recommend, those who aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and are eligible should get the jab before heading anywhere for the holidays.
“If you are unvaccinated, your recommendations are identical to what they were last year,” said Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University. “I would not be traveling if I wasn’t vaccinated right now. You expose yourself to significant risk.”
Of course, there’s one vast subsection of the population that’s ineligible to receive the vaccine: kids under the age of 12. Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained that her own family’s holiday travel plans are still tentative because she doesn’t want to risk the health of her unvaccinated children.
“It depends on whether or not my children can get fully immunized,” she said of her holiday travel plans. “So obviously that won’t be occurring before the Thanksgiving holiday, but perhaps for the December holidays?”
Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, said, “I think both the combination of boosters and younger children being able to have a vaccination by December certainly does make [holiday travel] safer.”
For those who are still unvaccinated when the holidays roll around, continuing to practice the usual precautions, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces is vital. If you’re vaccinated, but immunocompromised, the same is true, as your risk of infection is still higher than people with robust immune systems.
Khabbaza also recommended that Americans who are eligible to receive a vaccine booster do so before traveling for the holidays.
Ask Others’ Vaccination Statuses
While it may feel awkward to ask, travelers should find out whether or not the people they’ll be celebrating the holidays with are fully vaccinated, advised Brian C. Castrucci, president and CEO of the public health charity de Beaumont Foundation.
Some may choose to avoid visiting unvaccinated friends or family members, while others may find ways to still spend the holidays together relatively safely. Althoff suggested moving the festivities outdoors, if possible, or sticking to gatherings with only a small group of people.
“Those modifications that we all had to think through last year, some of us might have to go back to them if you’re going to be engaging with a group that has a hefty proportion of unvaccinated people,” she said.
Obviously, such modifications may not be feasible for everyone. “For example, a loved one who may be more frail, being outside in cold temperatures for a long period is really hard for that person,” Althoff said.
Pack COVID-19 Rapid Tests
Althoff also recommended bringing your own rapid test on your travel, even if you’re vaccinated, just in case you come down with some symptoms while you’re away. Should you come down with a cough, scratchy throat, etc. on your trip, a rapid test can help you quickly determine how to proceed.
“Having a test with you can provide you that peace of mind if, heaven forbid, you wake up on the morning of the celebration and someone’s not well,” she said.
Of course, rapid tests aren’t accurate 100 percent of the time and, if conducted too early in the course of a person’s illness, may not register the infection. Still, Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, believes they’re a valuable asset for travelers.
“Rapid antigen tests are really, really good at detecting active infection when you’re sick or symptomatic,” she said.
Prepare a Plan B
If you do happen to test positive just prior to the holidays, the responsible thing to do is stay home and self-isolate until you’ve recovered. We all would like to think it can’t happen to us, but sometimes life likes to throw curveballs.
Althoff, therefore, advises that everyone try to prepare themselves for COVID-related obstacles, whether that’s a change in travel restrictions at your destination, or personally contracting the virus just before or during your travels.
While having your holiday plans disrupted can be quite distressing, Althoff urged travelers to remain flexible and positive. If your plans were to fall through, think about whether you might find ways to see your friends or family at another time between now and New Year’s.
“Reconnecting with friends and being close to your loved ones is important always,” Althoff said. “But, particularly after the long road we’ve all been on together, thinking through how to do that safely so that your mental and emotional health is also prioritized with these moments of reconnection is important.”