Is it safe to travel for the holidays amid Omicron surge?

Even during a worldwide pandemic, there’s no cure for wanderlust

The US recently lifted restrictions on travel from a long list of countries, including Mexico, Canada and most of Europe, setting the stage for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making and providing a boost for airlines decimated by the pandemic. AP
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This time last year scientists were racing to roll out a coronavirus vaccine as health officials, pundits and anti-vaxxers argued over mask mandates, social distancing and travel guidelines.

The travel industry reported its lowest hotel occupancy numbers in 2020 as most people stayed at home for the holidays – lockdowns keeping them in their own corners of the world.

The good, the bad, the ugly

A year later, we now have a vaccine available to anyone willing to get jabbed, including children as young as 5. Boosters are available to all Americans 18 years and up.

Still, Covid-19 infections have resulted in more than 733,000 deaths in the US and more than 4,932,000 deaths worldwide – and infections are on the rise. In the past three weeks, new cases have spiked a whopping 30 per cent, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed "grave concern" over rising infections in Europe, going as far as to say the recent spike could mean "another half a million Covid-19 deaths" by February. Israel’s coronavirus tsar fears a fifth wave in his country, South Korea just reported its most cases and Austria is in full lockdown.

These stats, however, are not stopping anxious globetrotters from travelling, and President Joe Biden recently opened US borders to international travel after a 20-month closed-door policy.

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it screened 2.24 million travellers on Friday, their single busiest air travel day since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

They expect to screen about 20 million air passengers over Thanksgiving weekend, compared with about 26 million in the same period in 2019, leaving little to no room for proper distancing.

Do you feel lucky?

No matter how much they filter the air or sanitise the tray tables, there’s no controlling the health of your fellow passengers.

“The airlines aren’t checking domestic vaccine cards, so you really have no idea who might be on board with you,” Dr Shervin Kharazmi tells The National.

“I am certainly not taking my 5-year-old child into a situation where I don’t know the vaccine status of those around me.”

Dr Kharazmi is a paediatric emergency medicine specialist in Atlanta, Georgia.

“What it boils down to is knowing who you’re going to be around. Have they been vaccinated, even more so, have they been boosted?” he says.

“Everyone’s immune system is different. Don’t forget that just because you [took the jab], that doesn’t mean you can’t get infected.”

All about the booster

The CDC recommends everyone fully vaccinated get a booster, especially those over 50. April Kapu, who is president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, encourages people planning to travel for Thanksgiving and be in close proximity to others to get their booster shots ahead of time.

“Testing ahead of your gathering can protect your family and those at higher risk, as well as anyone who is unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated,” Kapu says.

“Even vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in crowded indoor public spaces as breakthrough infections continue to rise. It’s so important to note, a mild Covid case in a child can turn into a deadly case for an elderly grandparent, please protect the vulnerable this holiday season.”

Take it outside

Already a multi-billion-dollar industry, camper van sales in October were up a whopping 23 per cent from last year, according to the RV Industry Association. Not only are family vacations in a recreation vehicle cheaper, they also allow for greater control of one’s surroundings.

Discovery Channel editor and road trip enthusiast, Felicia Feaster, advocates for spending quality time with your family on walks or, even better, at a national park.

“I recommend avoiding crowds at overcrowded indoor shopping venues and driving when you can where you have much more control over your interactions with people,” Feaster says.

“Nothing inspires gratefulness and togetherness like time in nature with friends and family.”

Straighten up and fly right

Do not get on a plane until you are fully vaccinated, better yet, until you’re boosted.

Check your destination’s Covid-19 stats before traveling.

All public transportation hubs require masks that cover your nose and mouth.

Avoid crowded places with inadequate airflow.

Stay at home if you have been exposed to anyone testing positive to Covid-19, if you are not vaccinated or you feel sick.

Wash your hands.

Don’t touch your face.

Updated: December 17, 2021, 4:49 PM