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What 5 health experts advise for holiday travel this year

The CDC told everyone to stay home last year, but this season is different

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Around this time last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was warning Americans to stay home for the holidays as coronavirus cases surged and vaccines were still just a promise.

Now life looks very different as we go into the upcoming holiday season, with more than 57 percent of the U.S. population vaccinated and travel stumbling toward recovery.

Good news aside, the pandemic is not over despite coronavirus cases being on the decline, as the nation’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci recently reminded us.

What does that mean for our holiday travel outlook? We spoke with five public health experts to get their advice on hitting the road and skies to celebrate safely this year.

Everything you need for the return of travel

If you’re unvaccinated, advice is the same: Don’t travel

While some of the advice from health experts is nuanced, one takeaway is not: Those who can get vaccinated should do so before they travel for the holidays.

“I would not be traveling if I wasn’t vaccinated right now. You expose yourself to significant risk,” said Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University. “If you are unvaccinated, your recommendations are identical to what they were last year.”

Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said her holiday travel plans are at a “maybe” status because she doesn’t want to put her unvaccinated children at risk.

“It depends on whether or not my children can get fully immunized,” she said of her holiday travel plans. “So obviously that won’t be occurring before the Thanksgiving holiday, but perhaps for the December holidays?”

For unvaccinated travelers, precautions such as masking, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and social distancing are crucial. That also may be true if someone in your friend or family group is vaccinated but immunocompromised.

“People who are immunocompromised or on certain medications that limit the immune system, even with the vaccine, are going to be at a little bit higher risk,” said Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

Khabbaza also recommended that those who are eligible for their coronavirus booster vaccine should get one ahead of holiday travel.

“I think both the combination of boosters and younger children being able to have a vaccination by December certainly does make [holiday travel] safer.”

Travelers are confessing to using fake vaccine cards to their travel advisers

Ask about the vaccine status of your holiday celebrations

Though it may feel awkward or confrontational, Brian C. Castrucci, the president and CEO of public health charity de Beaumont Foundation said travelers should find out if people they’re visiting for the holidays are vaccinated.

I would want to know the vaccination status of everyone that I will be having my holiday with,” Castrucci said. “And if you’re telling me that’s a personal issue, then it’ll be a personal issue for me to stay home.”

While some people may end up avoiding unvaccinated friends or family members, others may adjust their activities to spend time together in safer ways.

Althoff said if you’re going to be spending time with unvaccinated people, you may want to consider coming up with outdoor activities or gathering in smaller groups.

“Those modifications that we all had to think through last year, some of us might have to go back to them if you’re going to be engaging with a group that has a hefty proportion of unvaccinated people,” Althoff said.

Of course, such tweaks may not work for everyone.

“For example, a loved one who may be more frail, being outside in cold temperatures for a long period is really hard for that person,” Althoff said.

You asked: I’ve been exposed to covid. Do I tell my Airbnb host?

Pack coronavirus tests, just in case

Althoff said it is wise to travel with a rapid test, even if you’re vaccinated and it’s not required of your destination. Testing may help you determine whether the scratchy throat you developed en route to Thanksgiving is a cause for concern.

“Having a test with you can provide you that peace of mind if, heaven forbid, you wake up on the morning of the celebration and someone’s not well,” she said.

Of course, rapid tests aren’t perfect, and testing too early may miss your infection. But Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, said they can still be valuable for travelers.

“Rapid antigen tests are really, really good at detecting active infection when you’re sick or symptomatic,” she said.

For those whose trip goes off without a hitch, Althoff said, once you get home from your holiday travels you don’t have to worry about testing again unless you have concerning symptoms.

Remember, we are dealing with a global supply chain crisis, and rapid tests are in high demand. Just like people are having issues getting couches and computer chips, coronavirus tests may be hard to come by. Don’t wait until the last minute to shop for a pack or two for your holiday travel needs.

Why and when you need a coronavirus test for travel

Have a holiday travel backup plan

Should you test positive, Malaty Rivera says the responsible thing to do is hunker down away from others and avoid using any public transportation until you’re recovered.

Althoff said everyone should prepare themselves for coronavirus obstacles, whether that’s changes in travel restrictions or getting infected before, during or after the trip. While a disturbance to your holiday calendar can feel devastating, she encouraged travelers to stay optimistic and flexible.

If your Thanksgiving falls through, can you tweak plans to see friends or loved ones another time between now and the new year?

“Reconnecting with friends and being close to your loved ones is important always,” Althoff said. “But particularly after the long road we’ve all been on together. Thinking through how to do that safely so that your mental and emotional health is also prioritized with these moments of reconnection is important.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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