How to manage travel risks as cases of coronavirus increase in summer

With Memorial Day approaching and many people in the Bay Area ramping up their summer travel plans, coronavirus remains a threat, with highly transmissible omicron variants driving the latest increase.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. coronavirus infection rate was 33 new daily cases per 100,000 people, on par with the delta’s peak late last summer. Hospitalizations are up 30% in the past 14 days, although it’s still well below the winter peak.

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

While a lot of people are understandably sick of COVID measures, it’s clear we’re seeing a boom right now, said John Schwartzberg, professor emeritus of vaccinology and infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

This means that while most people do not need to delete travel dates from their calendars, it is wise to consider the risks of COVID-19 and plan accordingly to make trips as smooth and safe as possible.

“People can travel now – people should think about travel now – but I think they have to understand that they are increasing their risk and they should be well versed in doing everything they can to mitigate the risks,” he said.

Here’s a look at the risks and expert advice on how to protect yourself while traveling and while staying at your destination.

Preparation and packing

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

Bronte Whitbyn/The Chronicle

Masks may not be required in most places in the United States, but they should be one of the most important items on your packing list to reduce COVID risks, experts say.

Travelers should wear high-quality masks (N95, KN95 and KF94) while at the airport, on the plane and on other public transportation, as well as in any crowded indoor places where they don’t know if others are infected, according to experts.

In addition to bringing ample high-quality masks, Schwartzberg advised packing COVID test kits and oximetry, just in case.

An infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, Peter Chen Hong, also advised carrying a “COVID kit” with pain relievers, a thermometer and decongestants.

You should also have a plan in place to get medical care if you need it, especially if you’re traveling abroad. Find medical facilities near your destination, as well as available access to COVID medications – including Paxlovid antiviral therapy if you qualify.

While it makes sense for experts to try and get Paxlovid as a precaution before traveling, they say it’s not possible now with the limited supplies meant for those already sick.

“If you start to feel ill, who will help you?” Swartzberg said. “Is there a hospital near you? The hotel doctor can be contacted? Don’t wait until you need care before looking for it. Don’t wait until you get sick and ask for baxiloids.”

Chin-Hong also recommended taking the test before departure – which is already required for some types of travel (see below) – and three to five days after returning from your trip.

If you get sick before your flight — and not just with COVID — you may want to consider canceling or rebooking, Chen Hong said. (Now more than ever, it makes sense to purchase travel insurance or exchangeable tickets.)

You should also keep an eye on any new variables involved, and if someone starts trading, delay your plans “until we know more about them,” he added.

Air travel risks and safety strategies

Travelers should keep in mind that the risks of transmission of COVID-19 are actually higher at airports than in planes, said Peter Chin-Hong of UCSF.

Travelers should keep in mind that the risks of transmission of COVID-19 are actually higher at airports than in planes, said Peter Chin-Hong of UCSF.

Constanza Hevia H / Exclusive to The Chronicle

The United States and many other parts of the world have relaxed COVID restrictions for travelers, and the federal government no longer requires mask enforcement on planes and other public transportation, including hubs like airports, so it’s up to individual travelers if they want extra protection by wearing a mask.

Masking experts advised – with Swartzberg adding that your mask should “really fit you” and be comfortable enough that you keep it on throughout the flight.

Chen Hong said travelers should keep in mind that the risks of transmission of COVID-19 are actually higher at airports than in planes.

He said it was safe to travel by air, given the “excellent” ventilation while on the planes which “is comparable to hospital ventilation.”

“But going to the airport, lining up for security, eating in the dining hall, congregating at the gate and jet-way before operating the aircraft for maximum air exchange may offer some risks,” he wrote in an email.

He said the risk is still higher for travelers over 65 or who have not been boosted, or for anyone who is immunocompromised.

These are among the reasons why Schwartzberg said it’s important to be on the lookout for vaccines and boosters, which he called “support” to mitigate COVID.

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends that everyone 5 years of age and older receive a booster dose at least five months after completing the initial series of vaccinations, adults 50 years of age or older and anyone 12 years of age or older who is deficient. Immunity gets a second booster shot. (Children between the ages of 5 and 11 were recently approved in the United States for Pfizer boosters.)

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