Covid cases are on the rise. Should You Change Your Summer Travel Plans?

(CNN) – Americans entered Memorial Day weekend with the United States five times the level of Covid-19 infection than this time last year. Cases continue to rise in most parts of the country, driven by the highly contagious BA.2.12.1 variant. At the same time, more people are returning to pre-pandemic activities.

Should people reassess their summer travel plans, with coronavirus cases on the rise? What precautions should they take? What about those with underlying medical conditions – and what advice is there for families with children under the age of five, who are still not yet eligible for vaccination?

To answer these questions, I spoke with CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health. She is also the author of Lifelines: A Doctor in the Fight for Public Health and a mother of two young children.

CNN: COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. Does this mean that people should cancel their summer travel plans?

Dr. Lina One: not necessarily. There may be some people out there who want to re-evaluate their travel plans, and everyone should consider contingencies – but I don’t think most people should cancel their summer travel.

Throughout the pandemic, advice has been given based on people’s risk factors for developing serious illness as well as their risk tolerance. Those who are in generally good health, and are vaccinated and boosted, are less likely to develop serious illness from Covid-19. It makes sense that many people would say, given their lower risk, that they are fine to resume pre-pandemic activities and will not restrict their travel or other activities. Yes, there is still a small chance that they will become severely ill, and long-term symptoms of coronavirus infection are still possible, but many people conclude that they will take this risk because the value of travel and all other pre-pandemic activities is very high for them.

On the other hand, there will be many people who still choose to be careful. The good news is that there are also many tools at their disposal that were not there before in the early stages of the pandemic. There are antiviral pills, for example, that further reduce the chance of developing serious diseases. Of course, making sure they are vaccinated and keeping up with reinforcements also reduces the risk of severe disease and symptomatic infection.

CNN: What are some factors that people should consider when deciding to postpone travel?

Wen: The most important is your medical risk of becoming seriously ill due to Covid-19. I would recommend speaking with your doctor to better evaluate your individual circumstances. This does not mean that people with underlying medical conditions should not travel, but rather that they should know what their risks are and then weigh that risk against the value they will get from the trip.

Another factor is whether you have had Covid-19 recently. Your chances of getting an infection are low if you’ve been infected within the past 3 months. On the other hand, if you get infected in 2020 and have never been vaccinated, you really should get vaccinated for optimal protection. And those who haven’t been boosted but are eligible to get the boost should also get the boost now.

Also consider what your plan is if you are going to contract Covid-19 while traveling. Are you going to a country with good medical care? Can you access the treatments you need right here, including antiviral pills, monoclonal antibodies, and remdesivir? I also recommend speaking with your doctor beforehand to find out which treatments you would be eligible for if you are in your home country. Will you be able to easily access the same treatments at your destination? Will your health insurance cover the cost of treatment?

The level of Covid-19 infection can also be a clue. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of countries by level of risk. I think you can refer to this guide while planning your trip, but keep in mind that conditions are volatile, and a country that was low risk a month ago may be more dangerous now and vice versa.

Passengers pass through a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport, May 26. COVID cases are on the rise in the US, so take precautions in high-risk areas during summer travel.

David Zalobowski/AFP

Finally, consider the inconvenience factor of what happens if you end up with a positive outcome while traveling. If the level of Covid-19 in the country you will be relocating to is high, and you engage in high-risk activities such as eating inside and going to crowded bars, there is a chance of contracting coronavirus. The US still requires pre-departure testing before international travel. If the test is positive, do you have the resources to isolate the number of days required? Would this be a major inconvenience – need to get back to work or family responsibilities? If so, it may work in favor of postponing your flight. Which reminds me – travel insurance is a very good idea, given the many uncertainties travelers face. Make sure to review your insurance policy carefully, as not all insurance plans cover disruptions related to Covid-19.

CNN: What precautions can people take while traveling?

Wen: Making sure you’re vaccinated and up-to-date with boosters is important. If you are immunocompromised, ask your doctor if you are eligible to take Evusheld, the protective antibody that gives you an extra level of protection.

Another key precaution is to wear a mask. Most airlines and airports no longer require masks, but remember that they are always an option for you. One-way masking with a high-quality, well-fitting mask – such as the N95, KN95 or KF94 – is very effective in protecting the mask wearer.

I recommend continuing to mask in crowded indoor spaces, especially if the area you are in has high levels of Covid-19 and/or you are around people coming from other places with high levels. Included while flying. If you don’t want to wear a mask during your entire flight, wear a mask during more hazardous settings – for example, you can take off your mask to eat but a mask while standing in the safety line and during boarding and disembarking an aircraft. (Air onboard is circulated and filtered during the flight but this is not usually done while boarding or disembarking the aircraft or when the aircraft is sitting on the runway.)

Also be careful of gatherings. Events with some distance, good ventilation, vaccination requirements, and same-day testing will be safer than those without. Again, this does not mean that you need to avoid every internal event, but you should be aware of the risks. If you are attending a high-risk event, be sure to take a quick test the same day before visiting your vulnerable loved one.

CNN: Will parents and caregivers of children under five feel some relief soon? Will their children be vaccinated in time for summer travel?

Wen: I hope that! I very much look forward to getting my two young children vaccinated when they are allowed to. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC are set to discuss a vaccine for young children this month. By the end of June, families with young children can have their first doses.

Families must decide for themselves whether they want to wait for travel until these children are vaccinated. This decision, again, depends on the risk tolerance and value of the activity.

Overall, we’re at a very different point in the pandemic than we were at this time last year. We have many tools at our disposal to help protect us from the worst effects of Covid-19. As this virus appears to be with us for the foreseeable future, we need to be aware of the risks, while also resuming parts of our lives that are important to our overall emotional health and well-being.

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