. – The end of the year is approaching and people are weighing travel plans to meet friends and family during the holidays in the context of a wave of the covid-19 pandemic.
Meeting others, probably the most universal Christmas tradition, has never required such meticulous foresight.
Should you travel during the holidays in 2020? What precautions will make it safer? Who will be there and how careful have they been?
CNN spoke with medical experts about the risks of vacation travel and when you should skip them altogether.
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Should you travel on vacation this year?
Health and government officials are increasingly urging people to stay home and avoid non-essential travel.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis urged residents to avoid Thanksgiving gatherings, likening the Christmas tradition to playing “Russian roulette” with family members most at risk.
He called on those planning to attend the intergenerational Thanksgiving gatherings to begin self-quarantining on November 13, two weeks before the meetings.
Canada’s Thanksgiving celebrations, which take place in October, have led to a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases.
“What we do in the coming days and weeks will determine what we can do at Christmas,” said the country’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in mid-November.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that travel increases the chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” says the CDC.
The agency has created risk guidelines that break down the components of the trip from transportation to accommodation and personal contact, rating options from “lower risk” to “higher risk.”
Pay close attention to the case counts at your destination, advises the CDC. The risk of infection increases in areas with high community transmission.
“If you choose to travel, keep your meetings small and take precautions” such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene, said Dr. Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of disease infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Who should not travel?
People who are especially vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19 are safer staying home.
“Are you old, frail, do you have underlying chronic diseases?” are the questions to ask, says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
People who are considering reuniting with vulnerable family or friends should really weigh the implications of bringing illness to them, Wu said.
“There are well-documented COVID-19 outbreaks associated with family reunions, including some that resulted in deaths,” he said.
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Are some locations safer than others?
Meetings are likely to be safest in areas around the world where infections remain low, although standard precautions still apply.
For example, in early October, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it might be possible to have a “relatively normal” Thanksgiving gathering in parts of the United States where infections are very high. low.
“But in other areas of the country … you’d better wait and maybe just celebrate with immediate family members,” Fauci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. As always, wear masks and keep gatherings small to reduce the risk of infection.
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Since then, cases have skyrocketed across the country, making meetings in most places riskier than a month ago.
Meeting people outside your immediate home and mixing guests from different geographic areas increases the risk of infection.
Does testing provide protection?
The tests can help detect coronavirus infections before traveling, Wu said, “but the tests are not foolproof.”
“It can be a false negative or it can just miss the infections that are still hatching,” he said. “Certainly it could also become infected during the journey and potentially infect others after that.”
The tests can offer “a level of reassurance if the people who attend are negative at the time the tests were done,” Schaffner said. You still have to be cautious.
Would a vaccine make travel safe?
Even if a vaccine were widely available in time for the holidays, it would likely provide partial protection just like the flu shot, Schaffner says.
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If it is 70% effective, then three people out of 10 will not be protected, and a considerable percentage of the population will not yet have been vaccinated.
It’s not “armor,” he says, and the other standard precautions would still apply.
Pfizer said in early November that the vaccine it is testing was more than 90% effective at preventing infections in volunteers.
Government officials are working on complex plans to distribute the vaccine.
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What is the safest way to get there?
Driving generally allows travelers more control over their interactions with other people than flying or other forms of communal transportation, experts say.
The CDC classifies “short car trips with members of your household with no stops along the way” in its “lowest risk” category, along with staying home.
Minimizing contact when you get out of the car is key, says Schaffner. Cover up when you’re out of the vehicle, make a few stops and be brief and opt for takeout instead of going into a restaurant.
With air travel, “you’re more at the mercy of what’s going on around you,” Schaffner said. Still, it’s important to wear masks, good hand hygiene, and maintain as much physical distance as possible.
Layover flights are classified as “higher risk” by the CDC.