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COVID-19 Q&A: Travel and holiday safety

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The holiday season has arrived, bringing with it long-awaited reunions of friends and family who have been separated by the pandemic. These celebrations can be made safe by practicing a few simple COVID-19 mitigation measures.

To discuss ways to safely travel and gather with loved ones, Jodie Guest, PhD, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health, teamed up with Henry Wu, MD, associate professor and senior physician at Emory School of Medicine and director of Emory’s TravelWell Center

Their conversation is part of an online video series hosted by Guest, who also leads the Emory COVID-19 Outbreak Response Team, answering questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. View their full conversation

Q: Is it possible to safely travel and gather with loved ones this year?

A: “Last year, we all advised that the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving was to stay home,” says Guest. “This year is different thanks to vaccines, but we’re still in a pandemic, so caution and planning are still a priority for safety.”

“We have vaccine that is safe and available for the majority of Americans, and even booster shots are increasingly available,” says Wu. “So I really encourage folks to see their families and do the things that you couldn’t do in the last year. It is time to catch up and see your loved ones; but also, remember that you can always make these trips and gatherings safer.” 

The best way to safely gather with family and friends is for everyone to be vaccinated, if eligible. Along with vaccination, Wu recommends avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas, and gathering outdoors when possible.

“Remembering that nothing is perfect, we can layer these approaches and make whatever trip or whatever gathering you’re doing much safer,” he says. “I think we can all use these tools and feel empowered to do things safer, and really enjoy our time with our families.”

Q: Is it safer to drive or fly during the holidays?

A:  While both modes of travel can be done safely, Wu suggests driving when possible. “The advantage of driving would be that you can control the environment — in terms of who’s in the car, where you’re going to make your stops — and that does reduce the exposure risks for somebody who is susceptible for infection,” he says. This may be especially important if traveling with a young unvaccinated child or an immunocompromised person. 

“Flying certainly is safe in the sense that the aircraft are very well-ventilated, and air is very well-filtered,” he adds. However, the risk of COVID-19 exposure may be greater around crowds and people wearing masks improperly at the airport.

Q: How do we best protect unvaccinated children?

A: The best way to protect unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children from COVID-19 exposure is for the people around them to be fully vaccinated. This also protects immunocompromised individuals.

“The idea of the ‘vaccine bubble’ is a great one,” Wu says. “It means getting folks who are eligible — in your family and who you’re gathering with — to be vaccinated as much as possible.”

“The vaccines are extremely effective in reducing your chance of being infectious, and I think it’s one of the easiest things you can do,” he continues. “Not all our children will be fully vaccinated, some of the younger kids are not eligible yet, and there may be others who are susceptible in gatherings.”

On Nov. 2, the CDC endorsed COVID-19 vaccination for children ages 5 through 11. Although these children will not be fully vaccinated by the Thanksgiving holiday, Wu still encourages everyone to begin vaccination as soon as possible.

“Even one dose appears to have some level of protection, and remember, our holiday season goes on for the next six weeks or so,” he says. “There will be a lot of gatherings, parties and things that are happening, so getting started as soon as possible will get everyone to that immunity level that will really make things safer.” 

Q: What types of COVID-19 tests are there, and when should they be taken?

A: There are two types of viral COVID-19 tests currently available: nucleic acid amplification tests and antigen tests. In the former category, PCR tests have become common for travelers.

“Our gold-standard PCR test is a molecular test that’s very sensitive to pick up infection even before somebody might be developing symptoms,” Wu says. Many clinics offer PCR testing. It can take up to 48 hours to receive results, so it is important to get tested at least two days in advance of travel.

Antigen tests, which are available to purchase at drug stores, can deliver results in as soon as 15 minutes. “It is certainly easier to do and get a quick answer, but it may not be as sensitive in picking up all infections,” Wu says. “However, both of these tests can be very important when planning a trip. Taking full advantage of them is something I would recommend.”

Wu and Guest both plan to take PCR tests before traveling for Thanksgiving. They will also take rapid antigen tests as an added precaution before gathering with family. When relying on antigen testing alone, Guest suggests taking multiple tests over a few days to improve sensitivity, if possible.

Travelers should also research testing requirements at their intended destinations before departure.

Q: How can we prepare for gatherings at home?

A: Because COVID-19 can linger in the air, gatherings should have adequate ventilation and air circulation. Wu says outdoor settings are always safer, but indoor celebrations can be made safe, as well. 

When indoors, “you may have to limit the number of folks that are coming, particularly if they are not all vaccinated or if there’s a susceptible person in the group,” he says. He also suggests opening windows or increasing air circulation when possible. 

If any individuals are unvaccinated, all attendees should wear masks. “I don’t think it’s that difficult for many of us to take that extra precaution, just setting a tone where everyone is clear that you’re being mindful of everyone’s health,” he says. 

“COVID-19 is a threat to all of us, but the threat is seriously reduced if you are vaccinated,” Guest emphasizes.

Additionally, Wu suggests having hand sanitizer available in a convenient spot for guests. “It’s the little things, and none of these are foolproof or perfect, but the more you can layer them up, the safer a gathering can be — and I sincerely believe that gatherings can be safe,” he adds. “That would be my approach to enjoy these holidays.”

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