We welcomed 2022 with a bitter surge of the highly contagious, albeit less lethal, omicron variant. Like millions of Americans, the disappointment of canceling holiday plans, again, tanked our mood, but we feared inadvertently bringing the virus to vulnerable family members.
Yet Qing and I vowed to stay hopeful and vigilant. We decided to use this holiday to make new memories by taking a quick vacation to Europe. One of our colleagues visited family in Asia and another hosted visitors from abroad. No travel is risk-free, but we believe it’s possible to travel safely.
Here are some tips from our own personal experiences and what we’ve learned from others.
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Budget for uncertainties
Air travel this winter is complicated by the double threat of weather and airline staff shortages. Expect cancellations and delays, but don’t fret. Book a direct flight if available, and budget time between flights if there’s a connection. Airlines will help find you the best alternatives and rebook at no charge, but this may mean you leave from or arrive at a different airport.
Allow a few days of cushion at the end of your time off, in case your return plans are disrupted or if you must quarantine. Currently the CDC recommends 5 days of isolation for COVID-positive patients, and for unvaccinated people who’ve been exposed to COVID.
Test before and after
Travel to Hawaii and most international destinations, including Canada, requires a negative COVID test. Check the requirements of both the airline and the country or territory government – they may differ in the type of tests accepted and how long before departure or arrival you must take the test.
We find that drug stores are the most convenient for testing, with fast results and no out-of-pocket cost. But you must schedule ahead of time as they’re often booked a week out. We advise against going to the emergency room or urgent care for travel tests because these resources should be reserved for symptomatic patients.
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To re-enter the U.S. by air, you must show a negative test within one day before take-off. In developed countries, drug stores, labs, hospitals, and airports offer reasonably priced tests. Also, we think it’s prudent to get a post-test 3-7 days after returning from your trip to rule out previously false negative results or exposure in transit.
An indoor vaccine mandate is common overseas, similar to US cities like New York, Boston, and DC. The European Union, and 33 other countries, has created a digital certificate to track its citizens’ vaccination and testing status. The personalized QR code (called the “COVID Passport” or “Green Pass”) allows the holder to enter public spaces such as museums and restaurants and move freely in the Schengen Area. The programs we use, such as SMART Health Card, Healthvana, and CLEAR, aren’t integrated with theirs, and there’s no easy way to convert. Therefore, it’s imperative to carry your paper vaccination card at all times when traveling. Save a picture in your phone as back up.
Protection during travel
Masking is a must, as the “mask police” stationed at popular tourist spots will tell you. Recent studies suggest that high quality masks like N95 and double masking work better than cloth masks, and the CDC is updating its recommendations to curb omicron transmission.
While all airlines require masking on the plane, the aircrafts are equipped with high efficiency particulate air filters that remove viruses and bacteria from circulation. High risk encounters happen in airport terminals – waiting in line at the gate or at immigration where social distancing is rarely observed. Besides masks, hand sanitizers, disposable gloves and disinfectant wipes are useful additions to your travel kit.
We were able to enjoy a wonderful vacation away and return without getting sick by planning the necessary testing and paperwork ahead of time, wearing adequate protection, avoiding crowded areas whenever feasible, and remaining flexible. As we know, the pandemic is evolving. Guidelines, requirements, and restrictions change day to day. One of the main lessons we’ve learned in the past two years is how to live with uncertainties. The coronavirus rages, but it doesn’t mean we have to put life on hold because of it.
Qing Yang and Kevin Parker are a married couple and live in Springfield. Dr. Yang received her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine and completed residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is an anesthesiologist at HSHS Medical Group. Parker has helped formulate and administer public policy at various city and state governments around the country. He is formerly the group chief information officer for education with the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology. This column is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The opinions are those of the writers and do not represent the views of their employers.