How to manage travel risks as COVID cases surge in summer

With Memorial Day approaching and many people in the Bay Area ramping up plans for summer travel, COVID continues to pose a threat, with highly transmissible omicron variants driving the latest surge.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. had a coronavirus case rate of 33 new daily cases per 100,000 people, on par with the height of the delta surge late last summer. Hospitalizations are up 30% over the past 14 days, though still well below the winter peak.

How do experts say you should factor that into your summer vacation picture?

While many people may be understandably tired of COVID measures, we are clearly in a surge right now, said John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of vaccinology and infectious diseases at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

And that means that while most people don’t need to scratch travel dates off their calendars, it’s wise to keep COVID-19 risks in mind and plan accordingly to make trips as smooth and safe as possible, he said.

“People can travel now — people should consider traveling now — but I think that they have to understand they are increasing their risk of exposure and have to be really well versed in doing everything that they can to mitigate risk,” he said.

Here’s a look at the risks and experts’ advice on how to protect yourself both during travel and while staying at your destination.

Preparing and packing

Experts say travelers should wear high-quality masks (N95, KN95 and KF94) while at the airport and on the airplane.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Masks may no longer be required in most places in the U.S., but they should be one of the top items on your packing list for minimizing COVID risk, experts say.

Travelers should wear high-quality masks (N95, KN95 and KF94) while at the airport, on the airplane and on other modes of public transportation, as well as in any crowded indoor spaces where they don’t know if others are infected, according to experts.

In addition to bringing ample good-quality masks, Swartzberg advised packing COVID test kits and an oximeter, just in case.

UCSF infectious disease expert Peter Chin-Hong also advised carrying a “COVID kit” with painkillers, a thermometer and decongestants.

You should also have a plan for getting medical care if you need it, particularly if you are traveling abroad. Research what medical facilities are near your destination, as well as available access to COVID medications – including the antiviral treatment Paxlovid if you are eligible.

While it makes sense to experts to try to get Paxlovid as a precaution before traveling, they say it’s not possible now with the limited supplies reserved for those who are actually sick.

“If you start to get sicker, who are you going to get to help you?” Swartzberg said. “Is there a hospital near you? A doctor the hotel can call? Don’t wait to need care before you search it out. Don’t wait until you get sick to ask for Paxlovid.”

Chin-Hong also recommended testing before departure — which is actually required for some types of travel (see below) —and three to five days after returning from your trip.

If you get sick before your trip — and not just with COVID — you might want to consider canceling or rebooking, Chin-Hong said. (Now more than ever, it makes sense to buy travel insurance or exchangeable tickets.)

You should also keep an eye out for any concerning new variants, and if one starts circulating, delay your plans “until we know a little more about it,” he added.

Air travel risks and safety strategies

Travelers should keep in mind that COVID-19 transmission risk is actually higher in airports than on airplanes, said Peter Chin-Hong of UCSF.

Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle

The U.S. and many other parts of the world have loosened COVID restrictions for travelers, and the federal government no longer enforces mask mandates on planes and other public transportation, including hubs like airports, so it’s up to individual travelers if they want the extra protection of wearing a mask.

Experts advised masking up — with Swartzberg adding that your mask should “fit you really well” and be comfortable enough that you will keep it on during an entire flight.

Travelers should keep in mind that COVID-19 transmission risk is actually higher in airports than on airplanes, said Chin-Hong.

It’s safe to travel by air, he said, due to the “excellent” ventilation while planes are in flight that is “comparable to hospital ventilation.”

“But going to the airport, lining up for security, eating at the food court, and congregating at the gate and the jetway before the plane turns on the maximum air exchange may provide some risks,” he wrote in an email.

The risk is still highest for travelers who are older than 65 or are unboosted, or anyone who is immunocompromised, he said.

Those are among the reasons Swartzberg said it’s important to be up to date on vaccinations and boosters, which he called the “backstop” to COVID mitigation.

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends everyone 5 and older get a booster at least five months after completing their primary vaccine series, and adults 50 and older and anyone 12 and older who is immunocompromised get a second booster dose. (Children in the U.S. age 5 to 11 were just recently approved for Pfizer boosters.)

Staying safe at your destination

Travelers should keep in mind that all places are not equal when it comes to coronavirus risk — and the picture is constantly changing.

“Places vary in COVID numbers, so it depends on the destination that you are going to what the risk is,” Chin-Hong said.

Arriving passengers should have a plan for how to get to and from the airport, and talk to any family or friends they intend to visit about their COVID mitigation plan, Swartzberg said.

While visiting your destination, it’s best to plan outdoor activities, wear a mask in crowded indoor areas, and consider testing beforehand if you’re planning large gatherings, experts said.

What if you get sick?

Even with precautions, you could still end up getting infected with the coronavirus during your trip.

If that happens, experts said, do the same thing you would do at home: Isolate, and seek medical care if needed.

Anyone who tests positive should isolate for at least five days and exit only if they test negative after that time, Chin-Hong said. It’s OK to take walks outdoors if you are masked and not around a lot of people, he added.

All travelers coming to the U.S. from overseas, including return travelers, are still required to show a negative COVID test before boarding their flights no more than one day before coming to the U.S. For that reason, Chin-Hong said, it’s important to take “extra precautions” while abroad — and remember you may get stuck for some time if you test positive.

If you’re traveling overseas, be sure to familiarize yourself with the protocols at your destination. In some countries, if you test positive you may have to quarantine in a government facility — at your own expense. In others, you may self-isolate. Requirements to leave isolation may also vary.

Kellie Hwang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @KellieHwang

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