By Kunjana Mavunda, MD
Safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have made safe travel easier. Over the past 18 months, we have learned that the COVID-19 virus is resilient, changes frequently, and that the Delta variant currently in circulation not only affects people of all ages, including young children, but is also more transmissible and contagious. Fortunately, we expect children between the ages of five and twelve will soon be eligible for shooting.
Young children and unvaccinated children and adults remain a concern for vacation travel. They can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus and can unknowingly transmit the virus to unvaccinated children and vulnerable or immunocompromised people, with serious consequences.
Many travel plans include visiting families and friends, and as the plans fall into place we all need to make sure we explore the safest ways to do so.
• General hygiene: COVID-19 is not the only disease we can catch while traveling! Maintaining protocols, such as wearing nose and mouth masks correctly in public, social distancing, hand washing, or frequent use of hand sanitizer, being careful not to touch the face – will help prevent transmission of not only the COVID-19 virus, but other respiratory viruses as well.
• Routine vaccinations: All adults and children should have their routine immunizations up to date. Each year, the flu shot is updated to provide protection against four strains that are expected to circulate in the community. Since the flu shot is changed every year, annual injections help build immunity over time.
• Flight : If you are traveling by plane, vaccines reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Other factors that can help prevent transmission are: time of travel – it is safer to fly early in the morning and during off-peak hours; organize carry-on baggage so as to facilitate access to necessary items; choose seats away from areas where there may be more movement (such as the toilet); select the window seats where less air can circulate than the aisle seats; wipe down all surfaces when boarding; avoid going to the toilet – but if you must, be sure to wipe all surfaces with antiseptic wipes – especially handles, faucets, seats; be the last to embark and disembark. If those around you are not following FAA guidelines for the flight, personnel should be notified although relocation is not possible.
• Masks and diet: Not all masks are created equal. Surgical, NK95 and multilayer masks are the safest. Remember that the sick person wearing a mask can still transmit the virus, but if you wear the correct mask correctly it will prevent you from inhaling the virus. Keep the mask on at all times. If you must eat or drink, put the mask back on as soon as possible. Bring your own snacks that don’t require too much food handling.
• Travel logistics: It is important to consider who you are visiting and the logistics of the potential stay. You should know that those around you are vaccinated, and if you are spending the night with your family, think about the congestion in the residence. Make sure the sleeping arrangements do not mix up the pods; people who sleep in the same room must belong to the same household. Finally, determine whether or to what extent everyone will be able to follow the social distancing guidelines.
• Hotels and Accommodation: If families are getting together, staying in a hotel may be a safer option. Most hotels have guidelines on sanitizing, masking, and social distancing. Unfortunately, as these instructions are not always followed, it is up to travelers to protect themselves. Remember to disinfect, wear masks, and follow social distancing guidelines in shared spaces.
• COVID-19 test: PCR tests are less likely to give false negative results, but the wait for results is usually longer. Results of rapid tests may be available within 20 minutes, but the possibility of a false negative result is higher than with PCR tests. Remember, we can all be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. If a family with children is visiting a family with the elderly, people with chronic illnesses or immunosuppression, it is important that all travelers are tested.
Unfortunately, many people around us fail to take precautions and choose not to get the vaccine. Whether we are traveling or in our daily lives, it is important for us to protect ourselves from these people who may be asymptomatic carriers. We can protect ourselves, our children and our families by following the guidelines for washing our hands or using hand sanitizers, the correct wearing of effective masks, social distancing and frequent sanitizing of our space.
Dr Kunjana Mavunda is a travel medicine specialist and pediatric pulmonologist certified by KIDZ Medical.