Campus News

How to travel safely this holiday season

With COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters widely available, more people will be traveling to see friends and family this year. A Gillings School of Global Public Health expert offers advice for staying safe.

A family wearing masks in the airport
(Adobe stock image)

As we head into the second holiday season of the pandemic, people are wondering what steps they should take to safely travel. Last year, many opted out of visiting family and friends to keep themselves and others safe. But with COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone over the age of 5 — and more and more people getting boosters — this year is different.

Despite the decline in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in North Carolina since August, COVID-19 and its variants, the flu and respiratory infections are still transmissible and more prominent in the winter months. Rachel Graham, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, shared with The Well her advice for staying healthy while traveling this holiday season.

What advice do you have for those who are flying or taking a train or other public transportation?

Being vaccinated is the best first step, but even after being vaccinated you should still wear a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth the entire time. Try to plan when you’ll take a break to eat or drink and find a place away from the crowds before removing your mask.

There’s not much evidence that surfaces are a source of transmission of COVID-19, but there are lots of other germs that you can catch on public transportation, so cleaning your armrests, seat and tray table with an antibacterial wipe is wise. Use an antibacterial gel on your hands between touching public surfaces or eating and drinking as well. That’s best practice even in the absence of a pandemic.

Lastly, if you have a choice between a 12-hour travel time versus a six-hour travel time, choose the more direct route. The less time you spend exposing yourself to the virus or other germs the better.

Can double-masking or taking immune supplements increase your protection from disease?

In my opinion, a single, well-fitting mask is the best bet. If you’re moving around with a lot of heavy bags, having to rush to make a connection or keeping up with children while you’re traveling, wearing two masks makes it more difficult to breathe. Your chances of taking those masks off when you shouldn’t increases dramatically. And I never recommend a face shield unless it’s in combination with a mask, because air easily moves beneath and around the shield.

If you are someone who takes supplements like vitamin C or zinc regularly, go ahead and take them. They may not help prevent a COVID-19 infection specifically, but it may give you a little bit of a mental boost that can keep your immune system up as well.

What is the risk involved in staying at a hotel or rental property?

Staying in a space that isn’t your own has its risks, but it’s not as dangerous as some might think. The well-known hotel chains, for instance, have bolstered their cleaning policies because they have a reputation to maintain. Staying at a mainstream chain with a clear cleaning policy is your safest option. Just remember to wear a mask everywhere except your room. Check Yelp, Kayak, social media, Google reviews and other forums to read reviews about their COVID-19 policies or cleanliness.

What factors should people consider when choosing where to travel over the holidays?

If you can be around fewer people, the safer you’ll be. But that being said, any group of people interacting mask-less still creates a very high transmission area. If you’re choosing between visiting a dense metro area versus a rural area, I would pick the less populated location. You can also check the vaccination rates in those areas to make the safest decision.

What advice do you have for those traveling with children who may or may not be fully vaccinated before the holidays?

Kids are tricky, because they can shed a lot of virus without displaying many symptoms. I recommend that everyone get their children vaccinated if that falls into their health plan for their child. It’s best to get that vaccination process started as soon as possible so that you have a two-week window between your last vaccination and time of travel, but any vaccination is better than nothing.

For those traveling with children five and under, do your homework about safety standards where you’re going. If you’re just visiting family, that’s usually a relatively safe destination because there’s a limited number of people that you’ll encounter. Make safe decisions and ensure that you aren’t exposing your child to a route of transmission, such as droplets or aerosols.

Should people get tested for COVID-19 before and after traveling?

Right now, the CDC is not recommending testing before or after domestic travel if you’re vaccinated. But, for those who aren’t vaccinated, the CDC is recommending a negative COVID-19 test before travel, and airlines may require it. You should check with your airline regarding their requirements before you book. If you’re going to be visiting people who are older, immunocompromised or unvaccinated, you should feel free to get tested for COVID-19 to reduce your own stress about becoming infected or passing the infection on to others.

Should people wear a mask when gathering with family and friends this year?

If you’re sharing food, drinks or eating at a communal table, wearing a mask won’t be very effective. But, if it makes you feel more comfortable to wear a mask when socializing or while not actively eating or drinking, you should wear one. Anything that makes traveling or visiting relatives less stressful is a good thing.