How to travel safely during the 2020 pandemic holiday season

The coronavirus pandemic keeps dragging on, and many people hoped it would be over in time for the holidays.

The gift of 2020 has quashed those dreams

Many health experts and officials are warning, and sometimes begging, Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as COVID-19 cases spike around the world in an evident third surge of the virus.

But isolation is hard, and many people are itching to get out of their homes and visit people they’ve only seen on a screen for months.

While experts generally advise against holiday travel, especially air travel, at all this year, here are some tips and advice about how to do so as safely as possible from Tidelands Health’s Gerald Harmon, the Myrtle Beach area hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.

Who shouldn’t travel?

Anyone who is feeling sick should not travel, and the best way to not get sick is not travel.

Is getting tested for COVID-19 before traveling a good idea?

Some states require visitors to either quarantine or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test for entry. This guide from AARP shows the rules for each state, such as when and how many times travelers have to get tested.

A negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that someone doesn’t have that virus or isn’t infectious, however. Positive tests are most likely to show up five to seven days after transmission, Harmon said. For people who have been going out and about normally, getting tested right before leaving could create a false sense of security, he said.

The best way to make sure you truly don’t have the virus before seeing the family, then, is to quarantine yourself for a week, getting tested and leaving soon after you get your results.

Getting tested isn’t a bad idea, but, Harmon said, “If you get a test in four days and it’s negative, you get a false sense of security when you won’t convert to a positive case for about seven days. And most importantly, you could be contagious before you convert positive.”

Is public transportation, like air travel, safe?

Driving, though notoriously hazardous during the holidays, is one way to avoid getting sick while traveling, so long as you are not in a car with people you don’t normally spend time with and limit any stops along the way.

Airlines have caught a lot of flak in recent weeks, as many started selling middle seats again, inherently preventing even limited amounts of social distancing. But air travel poses a number of other risks, too, from being close to strangers in TSA lines to breathing recirculated air for hours on end during a flight.

Harmon said airlines are doing their best to keep passengers safe considering the difficult situation they face.

“They’re making it as safe as physically possible,” he said. “But once you’re in that closed cabin with recirculated air, you’re in a fairly high-risk environment. Wear your mask, and you would hope that everybody else is wearing their mask and maintaining as much social distancing with adequate decontamination of the surfaces as possible.”

The best way to mitigate the risks of air travel is to wear a mask properly and consistently the entire time you are around strangers. Keep hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes with you as well, if possible.

These recommendations also apply to other forms of shared transportation, including taxis, buses and trains, even if they have better fresh air circulation.

Can I get COVID-19 from sharing food?

Food generally does not pose much of a risk for spreading COVID-19. But the behaviors surrounding eating do.

For meals involving multiple people eating the same food, designate one person, preferably with gloves, to serve everyone else. It will reduce crowding in small spaces like kitchens and limit the number of people touching the same surfaces.

“We don’t feel scientifically that food is a common source of transmission, although technically, it’s certainly possible,” Harmon said. “What we do realize is that when you’re in a group to get the food, that’s when you’re at a higher risk, where you’re going to be talking, coughing, breathing, perhaps even singing, all of which increases respiratory transmission of the disease.”

And just because food might not spread COVID-19 doesn’t mean it can’t make you sick. Food left out on the counter for more than a few hours can easily turn into a source of food poisoning, one of the leading causes of hospitalizations on and around Thanksgiving every year.

How can I reduce my risk of getting sick or infecting others in a group setting?

Reducing the size of the gathering is the best option, but here are some tips on how to mitigate other risks.

  • Have family gatherings outdoors, conditions permitting.

  • For indoor gatherings, open windows and doors to increase ventilation and air circulation in the confined setting.

  • Socially distance as much as possible. The family couch and a few chairs with trays might be a better option than a crowded dining table this year.

  • Try to keep things quieter. Talking increases the chances of virus particles spreading in the air. Ditch the music, so that people don’t have to talk as loudly to be heard (and maybe warn the loud talkers in advance).

Make sure to bring hand sanitizer — and tissues.

It’s always a good idea to have hand sanitizer with you, but Harmon said keeping some single-use tissues on hand is good as well. Just make sure they’re disposed of quickly and properly, and don’t leave them lying on the table, please.

“If you do find yourself in an area where you have to blow your nose or cough or just wipe your eyes or something, what are you going to do if you don’t have a tissue there? You wipe it on your sleeve and you put it on your mask?” Harmon said. “Carry tissues with you so that you can immediately take care of that when you blow your nose or cough or sneeze, and throw it away into a safe environment.”

Wear your mask — properly and as much as possible.

Keep that mask on anytime you are not eating, especially when in close proximity to other people. And, please, make sure it covers your mouth and nose. This is about protecting your family, and no one wants the guilt of knowing they might have passed a fatal illness on to a loved one.

Also have a place to put your mask when you’re not using it. Letting it fall to the floor isn’t very sanitary, but neither is setting it on the table next to your food. Harmon recommends bringing a plastic or paper bag, and storing it in there for the duration of the meal.

Some final thoughts.

Hospitals are already inundated with patients at the end of the year, as people schedule elective surgeries for when they are already on vacation or want to get in before health insurance benefits restart in January. COVID-19 will make that situation worse if hospitals are offering, or are even allowed to offer, elective surgeries in the first place.

Staying at home and not getting sick will help alleviate this unavoidable situation, Harmon said.

“I’m not telling you to be a social hermit,” he said. “Right now, with some increasing spread in the community, we need to think about staying at home for the holidays or not traveling right now. I know that’s a sacrifice, but it may be the best healthy decision for your family.”

Chase Karacostas writes about tourism in Myrtle Beach and across South Carolina for McClatchy. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Political Communication. He began working for McClatchy in 2020 after growing up in Texas, where he has bylines in three of the state’s largest print media outlets as well as the Texas Tribune covering state politics, the environment, housing and the LGBTQ+ community.

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