By Kunjana Mavunda, MD

The safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have facilitated safer travel. Over the past 18 months, we have learned that the COVID-19 virus is resilient, changes frequently, and the currently circulating Delta variant not only affects people of all ages, including younger children, but is also more transmissible and infectious. Fortunately, we expect children ages five to twelve to be eligible for the shot soon.

Younger children and unvaccinated children and adults remain a concern for holiday travel. They can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and can unknowingly transmit the virus to unvaccinated children and vulnerable or immune-compromised people – leading to serious outcomes.

Many travel plans include visiting families and friends, and as plans come together, we must all make sure to explore the safest ways to do so.

• General Hygiene: COVID-19 isn’t the only disease we can pick up during a trip! Maintaining protocols, such as wearing masks properly over the nose and mouth in public, social distancing, washing hands or using hand sanitizer frequently, being careful about not touching the face – will help prevent the transmission of not only the COVID-19 virus, but also other respiratory viruses.

Routine Immunizations: All adults and children must have their routine immunizations updated. Every year, the influenza vaccine is updated to provide protection against four strains that are expected to be circulating in the community. Since the influenza vaccine is changed every year, annual shots help boost immunity over time.

• Plane Travel: If you are traveling by plane, vaccines mitigate the risk of virus transmission. Other factors that may help prevent transmission are: time of travel – flying early morning and off-peak hours is safest; organizing carry-on bags so that access to necessary items is easy; choosing seats away from areas where there may be more movement (such as lavatories); select window seats where less air may circulate than aisle seats; wipe all surfaces upon boarding; avoid using the toilet – but if you have to, make sure you wipe all surfaces with anti-septic wipes – especially handles, taps, seats; be the last to board and disembark. If people around you do not follow FAA guidelines for flying, the staff should be notified although moving may not be possible.

Masks and Eating: 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 properly, it prevents you from inhaling the virus. Keep the mask on at all times. If you have to eat or drink, put the mask back on as soon as possible. Bring your own snacks that do not require too much food handling.

Trip 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 staying overnight with family, consider how crowded the residence will be. Make sure the sleeping arrangements don’t mix and match pods; people sleeping in the same room should be from the same household. Finally, consider whether or to what extent everyone will be able to follow social distancing guidelines.

• Hotels and Lodging: If families are coming together, staying at a hotel may be a safer option. Most hotels have guidelines about sanitizing, masking, and social distancing. Unfortunately, since these guidelines are not always followed, it is up to the travelers to protect themselves. Remember to sanitize, wear masks, and follow social distancing guidelines in shared spaces.

COVID-19 Testing: PCR testing is less likely to provide false negative results, but there is generally a longer wait for results. Rapid testing results can be available within 20 minutes, but the possibility of a false negative result is higher than with PCR testing. Remember, we can all be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. If a family with children travels to a family with older adults, people with chronic illnesses or immune-suppression, it is important for all travelers to be tested.

Unfortunately, many people around us do not take precautions and choose not to be vaccinated. Whether we are traveling or in our daily life, 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 guidelines regarding hand washing or using hand sanitizers, wearing effective masks properly, social distancing and sanitizing our space frequently.

Dr. Kunjana Mavunda is a practicing travel medicine specialist and a board-certified pediatric pulmonologist with KIDZ Medical