When I got the coronavirus in January, I spent the better part of two weeks in bed, too tired to do much. As I recovered slowly, a thought kept churning in my head as I considered my future immunity: “What does this mean for travel?”
But health experts said life after infection comes with caveats, especially as we learn more about omicron. Here’s what four experts advise.
‘There’s a wide range of behaviors that are acceptable’
Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease expert at New York University and a member of President Biden’s covid-19 transition task force, says based on the rate she has seen antibodies decline after infection, “you probably do have at least a couple of months of some kind of protection against both infection and disease.”
The protection doesn’t work like a switch, and it depends on whether a person has had the coronavirus before and whether they are vaccinated.
“It’s sort of this steady decline,” Gounder says. “Somewhere between three and six months, you certainly would be at risk for reinfection.”
How you approach travel after a coronavirus infection will depend on your demographic and risk factors. While travel will never be 100 percent safe, “I think as long as you’re not putting others in danger, and you’re not being reckless to the point of really adding to the burden on health-care systems … there’s a wide range of behaviors that are acceptable,” Gounder says.
She finds trips where you can spend most time outdoors to be the least risky, including going camping and visiting destinations where you can eat outside at restaurants. If you are flying anywhere, Gounder recommends wearing an N95 mask, like the 3M Aura one (“They’re actually pretty comfortable,” she says) and keeping it on as much as possible from the time you leave your house to the time you arrive at your final destination.
‘We’re never going to go back to the way it was’
People should remain vigilant about coronavirus mitigation efforts, even if they’ve recently had it, says Brian C. Castrucci, the president and chief executive of de Beaumont Foundation, a public health charity.
For vaccinated and boosted travelers who have had omicron, “you probably do have immunity, but we don’t know for how long,” Castrucci says. “The immunity is not going to be enduring, and it’s still possible to get a severe infection that has ongoing symptoms.”
Just as there are still safety protocols in place at airports following the 9/11 attacks, we can expect coronavirus protocols to stay put, Castrucci says.
“We’re never going to go back to the way it was,” he says. “Even if this becomes endemic, it’s going to then indelibly change how we go about our lives.”
Castrucci says what that looks like for travelers going forward is wearing a well-fitting mask in public places, knowing the vaccination and case rate of the place you’re visiting, taking a coronavirus test before you leave, and packing rapid tests in case you feel sick on the road.
‘Natural infection wanes a lot faster than vaccination’
If you’re vaccinated, boosted and recently recovered from the coronavirus, “your chances of having a serious reinfection are not very high,” says Karl E. Minges, the interim dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences in Connecticut.
However, “you’re not protected forever,” Minges says. “Natural infection wanes a lot faster than vaccination. So if you have been infected by omicron and you’re unvaccinated, do get vaccinated.”
Recovering from infection “doesn’t change the calculus about what activities are safer as compared to others,” Minges says, encouraging recovered people to follow the same precautions they would before. For example, take a rapid test before doing something on the upper level of your risk tolerance, like traveling.
‘We saw many people infected with delta who got reinfected with omicron’
Jayne Morgan, a cardiologist and executive director of the covid-19 task force at Piedmont Healthcare, does not want recently recovered travelers to have a false sense of security, because the future of mutating variants is impossible to predict.
“You should still exercise caution because you still have the ability to be reinfected with new variants that could come about,” Morgan says. “We saw many people infected with delta who got reinfected with omicron.”
While Morgan says 90 days is usually how long immunity lasts before it starts to drop, there is inconsistency with how it drops. With much unknown about the omicron variant, it is unclear how long natural immunity lasts and whether it will be effective in protecting against future variants.
Beyond keeping up with covid-cautious behavior as a social responsibility to vulnerable people around you, Morgan says not to let up your defense because of the state of the pandemic.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic with exceptionally high numbers,” she says. “We are in a worse situation with [case] numbers now than we were with our first three surges.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t take a vacation. Morgan says she advocates for trips with outdoor activities, which she recognizes may be difficult, but not impossible, to pull off in cold winter weather.
“This is a great time to take a ski trip and be outdoors,” she says.