The holiday season is normally a major time for nationwide travel. If the bumper-to-bumper traffic and long TSA lines weren’t an indication...in 2019, a record 115.6 million Americans traveled between December 21 and the end of the year, according to data from the American Automobile Association.
But obviously, things are quite far from normal right now. Most Americans have been limiting their social interactions this year, following the CDC’s guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19. This obviously begs the questions, “Should I even travel for the holidays this year? Is there a safe way to do so without endangering the health of loved ones and community members?”
To help with your holiday planning, we asked two epidemiologists to weigh in on traveling safely this year. There are no perfect answers, and you’ll ultimately have to make your own decision, but these tips can help inform the best choice for you and your family.
COVID-19 Predictions This Winter
Before we dive into specifics, let’s paint a picture of what these next few months could look like. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is on the upswing across the U.S., averaging over 80,000 cases and 800 deaths per day. Rashid Chotani, M.D., medical director and senior scientist at IEM in Morrisville, NC, believes this trend will likely continue. “At this rate, by Christmas we will have close to 14 million cases and close to 275,000 deaths,” he says, provided these numbers stay consistent.
That’s assuming Americans keep up with wearing masks and social distancing, which may not happen as the weather starts to get worse. Science shows that viral transmission is significantly less likely outdoors, which is why so many of us have been gathering for picnics and hikes together these last few months.
But in winter, people tend to gather more closely indoors, which could potentially lead to a bigger spike in COVID cases.
“We are headed into winter and must be extra careful and not let our guard down,” Dr. Chotani urges. That said, COVID fatigue is real and social connections are essential for our mental health. “People are exhausted from staying at home,” he says, “and some folks want to travel,” whether it’s for a vacation or a trip to see family in another state.
The reality is that no travel plans will be 100% safe. “Keep in mind that any travel outside of your home carries with it a level of risk,” says Brandon Brown, Ph.D., associate professor at the Center for Healthy Communities at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine. Indoor gatherings always carry the possibility of a COVID outbreak, even if no one in your family is symptomatic at the time (a reminder that asymptomatic cases can still be contagious!). For this reason, Brown recommends holding off on in-person celebrations this year. “I urge people to wait to physically celebrate together at this time, which will ensure that more of you are alive and well to celebrate again in the future.”
Dr. Chotani recommends the same. “Any sort of travel increases the risk of exposure to the virus,” he says, “so it is best to avoid traveling during this time if possible.”
Why Travel Is Risky
COVID-19 numbers vary from community to community, and just because you live in a county with a low COVID rate doesn't mean you're immune to getting it in a high-COVID state, nor does traveling from a high-COVID area to one low in infections protect you from getting it. For this reason, the CDC is discouraging non-essential travel between counties and states. “Travel can accelerate the spread of COVID,” Brown says, “because both those who are traveled to and those traveling can have symptomatic or non-symptomatic infection, with the ability to spread infection to the other group.” When people from a community with high COVID numbers visit a community with low COVID numbers, they may potentially be bringing the virus with them, initiating another local spike.
“Realize that any time you interact with people outside of your home you are taking a risk of getting infected,” Brown says. If you’re planning to stay with extended family or friends, your risk goes up even more because of the amount of time you’ll spend in a shared space.
That said, if you do make the choice to travel right now, some methods are safer than others.
As you might expect, car travel is the safest way to get around right now (other than, obviously, choosing to stay at home). “Taking a road trip is definitely the safest, as one can control the risk,” Dr. Chotani explains. You’re in your own vehicle, surrounded by the people who live in your household. This minimizes any external exposure to the virus.
Bring masks and hand sanitizer with you in the car so you can wear them whenever you need a bathroom break. “If you must stop, use basic precautions,” Dr. Chotani urges. “Spend as little time in the restroom as possible. Avoid touching any surfaces in the restroom, and most definitely don’t touch your face.” Use disinfecting wipes on surfaces like gas pumps or ATMs. If you stop for food, your best bet is getting carry-out or packing meals ahead of time.
For road trips, the shorter, the better. “Short distances are safer because you are less likely to make as many stops,” Dr. Chotani says. “Risk comes from increased exposure through points of contact; thus, restrooms, stopping at gas stations, dining, and ridesharing during a road trip increase the odds of getting infected.”
Thinking of a cross-country destination that’s too far to reach by car? Plane travel is an option, but not necessarily a safer one. Dr. Chotani explains that the airplane itself carries little risk of airborne transmission because of the complex air filtration system on most aircrafts. “The primary risk is because it is difficult to maintain social distancing on crowded flights,” he says. You may be sitting very close to someone for hours on end, and you have no control over where they have been or who they’ve encountered.
Most major airlines require masks on flights, and face shields can add an extra layer of protection. Do your research on what the airline is doing to prevent the spread of COVID: Are they spacing out passengers? Cleaning the plane between flights? All of these things can help decrease the risk of transmission. In the airport, treat your surroundings just like you would a gas station restroom. Use hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, and try to keep as far away from others as possible.
This one is also tricky because of a lack of control over your environment. In a public vehicle such as a train, Brown says, “you are in an enclosed space with others outside of your household … being potentially exposed to the virus.” And you could be sitting close to an infected person for hours on end.
If you do need to take a bus, train, subway, or other method of public transport, follow the same general guidelines you would on a plane. Wear a mask and face shield, try to space yourself out, and disinfect everything you touch.
Keep an Eye on Case Numbers
One more piece of advice before you take off on a holiday trip: Keep your plans flexible in the event that COVID cases spike. “Make sure you take a look at the disease intensity of where you are heading,” Dr. Chotani suggests. CDC’s COVID Tracker keeps tabs on the case numbers in every state, and state health departments often have county-specific data.
If COVID is surging where you are or where you’re going, you might want to hold off on traveling this year. (Book hotels with a good cancellation policy, just in case.) Ultimately, staying on top of the data will help you be a more prepared and responsible citizen. “If we all use the preventative measures that we know work,” Brown says, “then we can beat this virus.”