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Planes, trains and automobiles: reducing the risks of traveling this summer

A photograph of a family loading luggage into a car. The photo is by Getty Images.
If you are planning to travel this summer, going by automobile could be safer, experts say. (Photo by Getty Images)

After enduring more than two months of quarantine, businesses and institutions are reopening, spurring summer travel plans to satisfy the urge to escape confinement. But is it safe to travel with the threat of COVID-19 still lingering? Experts at UT Physicians and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) weigh in on how to reduce the risks of traveling and make health-conscious decisions as we plot out the summer.

“The main thing to remember is that we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” said Luis Ostrosky, MD, infectious disease specialist at UT Physicians and professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “It is not business as usual, and each person needs to assess his or her own risks before they travel.”

There is no way to avoid all risks while traveling, but careful preparation and a healthy dose of caution can help people weigh their own risks and make informed decisions.

What are the risks of traveling?

Personal risk depends on one’s age, health, and household.

“The first question you should answer is whether you or a member of your household have a condition that increases the risk for developing COVID-19,” said Michael L. Chang, a pediatric disease specialist at UT Physicians and assistant professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School.

Those who are at higher risk for developing severe illness include people 65 years and older and those who have underlying medical conditions – particularly if not well controlled. People who fall into these categories, or have a household member who does, should consider avoiding travel or taking greater precautions to minimize the risk of transmission.

“Another thing to consider is the prevalence of the virus at your destination and how strictly you will be able to adhere to precautions such as social distancing during planned activities or excursions,” Chang said.

You can check the spread of COVID-19 at your destination using the data tracker provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You should also verify guidelines posted by local governments because many areas continue to restrict activities or have particular rules.

“Before you travel, you should also carefully consider how a quarantine might impact your life,” said Chang. “Traveling to a destination that is, or becomes, a hotspot for COVID-19 may require you to quarantine for two or more weeks upon return. Consider whether you will be able to work or support your loved ones if you were required to quarantine.”

What considerations should you make when traveling with a child?

Adults make up the majority of COVID-19 cases and children generally experience milder symptoms. However, the same social distancing and hygiene precautions apply to people of all ages.

One rising concern is the emergence of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19. MIS-C can cause life-threatening inflammation throughout the body, including in the heart, lungs, brain, and other organs. While the cause is unknown, many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19 or had been around someone with COVID-19.

“While children and infants seem more resilient to COVID-19 and less likely to suffer severe illness, you should consider whether you will have access to advanced pediatric care at your destination,” Chang said.

Do certain modes of transportation carry less risk?

“No method of transportation is completely risk-free, but you can help mitigate risk by choosing methods where you have more control over your environment and the people you are with,” Ostrosky said.

Below are some considerations to make for popular transportation options:

  • On the road: RVs and automobiles are among the best travel options because you are able to minimize contact with people outside of your party. You can avoid crowded rest areas and minimize the number of stops. To further reduce risk, wear a mask at rest stops and practice social distancing and good hand hygiene. After washing your hands at a rest stop, use hand sanitizer before reentering the vehicle. Use hand sanitizer after touching gas pumps and touchscreens.
  • Airline: Travel by plane requires spending time in close proximity to others in security lines, airport terminals, and on the flight, increasing your risk of exposure. When possible, maintain physical distance, wear a mask, and avoid touching surfaces. Most viruses do not spread easily through air ventilation on flights because of how planes filter circulating air.
  • Train and bus: Travel by bus and train can involve sitting or standing close to others for extended periods of time. Wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces, and maintain distance from other passengers when possible.

Are there locations and activities that carry less risk?

“Try to focus on outdoor locations and activities where you can safely maintain social distancing protocols,” Ostrosky said.

Choose areas where there is more space and fewer people. Visiting public beaches or pools may provide good options if you are able to maintain at least six feet of distance from other people. Activities such as hiking or exploring state and national parks could also be good options, but check the status ahead of time to ensure the park is open.

How can you evaluate the risks of lodging options?

“If your travel plans require an overnight stay at a hotel or Airbnb, be vigilant about social distancing and try to review the accommodation’s cleaning procedures to ensure rooms are being thoroughly disinfected,” Ostrosky said. “You can also search for accommodations that are creating buffers of up to three days between guests.”

While enhanced cleaning procedures may help reduce the risk of transmission, you can also bring disinfectant to wipe down common surfaces such as tables, handles, light switches, and remotes.

When will it be safe to travel again?

Until a vaccine is available to eradicate COVID-19, there will be risks associated with travel.

“We will likely be living with this disease for the foreseeable future,” Chang said. “But if each person evaluates his or her own risk and follows the appropriate guidelines to reduce transmission and exposure, we can make thoughtful decisions to travel safer.”

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