Infectious disease experts weigh in on how to plan a safe family vacation this summer
Last year our Fourth of July was spent at home and celebrations were limited due to the constantly evolving COVID-19 pandemic. However, this year, thanks to climbing vaccination rates and dropping case counts, travel is possible again.
For those who would like to take a trip this Independence Day weekend, infectious disease specialists with UT Physicians and UTHealth share expert advice to stay safe while hitting the road or the sky.
If you’re fully vaccinated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you can resume the activities you were doing before the pandemic, such as attending gatherings with people outside of your home, no longer wearing a mask indoors, and dining inside at restaurants. You are considered fully vaccinated when it’s been at least two weeks since you’ve received your second dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after the Johnson & Johnson single dose COVID-19 shot. In the U.S., masks are still required by federal law in airports, onboard commercial aircraft, on over-the-road buses, and on commuter bus and rail systems through Sept. 13.
Picking a destination
For starters, experts recommend researching the rate of community transmission in the location of your destination. What are the current COVID-19 case counts? Does the location have a high rate of strains that are more transmissible and therefore riskier for any unvaccinated family members or any household members with underlying conditions that could lead to serious illness? Also, be sure to evaluate how crowded the destination may be and what level of physical distance you can maintain to protect any at-risk family members.
How to get there
“Driving is safest as far as COVID-19 transmission is concerned, but if you’re planning on flying, book your trip on a week day when the plane is less likely to be full,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “Choose a window seat as opposed to an aisle seat, and try to sit near the back of the plane. Also, try to avoid eating and drinking on the plane and limit bathroom trips as much as possible. Once the plane lands, wait until everyone else has exited.” Be sure to maintain physical distancing at the airport, too, she said.
“If you have unvaccinated family members, aim for lower-risk activities and limit exposure to large crowds. If you do venture out to a crowded, enclosed environment, everyone, regardless of vaccine status, should wear a mask,” said Susan Wootton, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
“The vaccine doesn’t prevent transmission 100% and your unvaccinated loved ones are still at risk of asymptomatic transmission from a vaccinated individual, as shown by the recent New York Yankees COVID-19 outbreak,” said Wootton, who is also a pediatric infectious diseases specialist with UT Physicians.
If you are staying at a location with a kitchen, try to cook as many meals there instead of eating out. Outdoor activities such as hiking or going to a beach are safer than indoor activities. Do not forget to pack lots of sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to keep your hands and surfaces clean.
Troisi said that her family has two upcoming trips planned: renting a beach house with their children and grandchildren, and a cruise to Iceland with her husband and some friends. “For our beach vacation, we are renting a house and plan to eat there for every meal. For our cruise, Iceland requires travelers be vaccinated to enter,” she said. “The bottom line is our mental health is equally as important, and that includes taking time to travel to visit your loved ones in other locations. Is it risk-free? No, but it’s important to balance the risk and benefits, as well as reduce the risk as much as possible for safe vacation.”
Wootton, who is also planning a family trip this summer with her child who is not yet old enough to receive a vaccine, said her family will continue to mask up.
“We still need to advocate for our kids, and that means making decisions to protect the most vulnerable,” she said.