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Are You Traveling This Season?

Here are suggestions for traveling during the pandemic.

One of my favorite books is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriele Garcia Marquez. It’s a book about magical realism going forward and backward in time. While the title is interesting, it reminds me of our current state. This essay might be called, “Travel in the Time of Covid,” because it is a time that defines the early part of the 21st century. It’s a pandemic that affects our daily lives, economy, living conditions, medical care, and the ability to travel safely and comfortably. We can look back in time when things were easy, but looking forward requires a bit of concentration and analysis. Mobility is one aspect of life that is an integral aspect of being human, and it has been significantly altered by the pandemic. The method of conveyance, plane or train or bus, has been altered for the foreseeable future by a simple non-living viral particle. There are precautions that must be understood and, in most cases, these are federally regulated and necessary for public health. When we choose to get from Point A to point B, there are now concerns and difficulties, changes that are collectively stressful. The issue may be travel nationally locally or internationally.

In the United States, there have been 745,000 deaths in a total number of 45.9 million documented cases. The world has experienced 5 million deaths within 264 million infections. In the U.S., one dose of the vaccine has been given to 67.1 percent of the population, whereas the full vaccine has been given to 58.3 percent of the population. The U.S. vaccination rates are high, but this is certainly not the case around the globe; travel has considerable risk associated with it.

Local travel has already seen its limitations. It is clear from my experience in the New York metropolitan area that some people fear public transportation. Ridership in buses, subways, and trains has declined considerably, the roads are congested even more than usual each morning, and commuters experience considerable frustration and misery. Work at home if you can. Those who can work at home find new joy in their lives; they can be with their children, see them off to school, have a simple conversation with a spouse, and take private time to truly relax. I do not know how long this will last, but it is a bit of normalcy that has been lacking in the past. While people who commute by bus or train have issues, it is nowhere as stressful as being confined in a hermetically sealed tube at 40,000 feet.

National travel by train or by plane is challenging. If you have a choice, you should fly rather than take a train or bus. The air is purer on planes and the journey is shorter, which means less potential exposure to an infected individual. You might also take extra precautions and wipe the tray table down with some disinfectant, although the airlines tell us that they disinfect the interiors of planes between flights. There is a constant tug of resistance between those who acquiesce to wearing masks and social distancing, and those who are revolutionaries and refuse to wear a mask and to take the necessary precautions to prevent infection. This happens in the terminal and in the air. Since the vaccines appeared in December 2020, there are decidedly people who are adamant against vaccination, people who are unwelcome in airplanes. To further complicate things, the act of wearing protective masks, washing one’s hands, and showing proof of vaccination also remains an issue of public health that everyone understands and abides by. In total, so far, airlines have experienced over 4,000 incidents of violent behavior on flights, because people do not want to wear masks or follow CDC guidelines. The violence includes everything from flight attendants losing teeth to having broken noses. Unruly passengers, who were probably on their way to Grandma’s house, are now subject to federal imprisonment with long-term consequences.

Be careful about your destination. International travel can be challenging; countries are graded by the CDC from Levels One through Four, with a Four meaning that the country should be avoided due to possible Covid exposures. Barbados and the French West Indies are now at Level Three at this time, whereas Guadalupe Bay and Martinique are at Level Four. Nonessential travel to these countries should be avoided, if possible. Using another example, travel from Great Britain to the U.S. requires a negative Covid-19 test within three days of travel or a doctor’s note saying that you have recovered in the 90 days preceding your trip. There are waivers, of course, but they are difficult to obtain. People who travel to Great Britain now may find that there are no restrictions on travel within the country and there are no curfews. But there are red-list countries that in the past required you to pay for quarantine hotel costs after arrival if you came from a country wherein the infection rates were high. Most recently Russia, Moscow in particular, implemented a major lockdown, with over 1,900 people dying per day. Most workers within Moscow had been given nine days off because of the uptick in infection. This would not be an easy place to visit. Some countries like Austria have a lockdown on unvaccinated people. A traveler’s best recourse is to contact the U.S. embassy in the destination country to get advice as to whether it is safe to travel there.

More and more for specific airlines, tests have to be done prior to flying, getting into restaurants, and going into public events like concerts and sporting events. These tests include: The most sensitive PCR or polymerase chain reaction test that actually looks for the virus in your nasopharynx, and the outer protein antigen test that is a rapid diagnostic test conveniently done in airports, bus terminals, and train stations. Some individuals have gone so far as to invest in home testing kits at great expense, but the results might have to be verified by a health professional. The third test that is irrelevant to travel is the antibody determination test where the immune response is examined by measuring levels of neutralizing antibodies. Even if you are vaccinated, one of these tests may be required by certain countries and air carriers to allow travel. Place your laminated vaccination card in your passport and carry copies of the card in your luggage or on your cell phone.

Another consideration for all travelers is the importance of understanding and recognizing that your destination may or may not have appropriate medical facilities to handle a sudden onset of the Covid illness. Many states in the U.S., particularly in rural areas, may have one hospital in a radius of hundreds of miles. Such a hospital will have an intensive care unit and ventilatory capability for you if they are not full and have enough qualified staff to care for you. Before you go to any destination, check the availability of hospitals and the capability of the hospital to provide care. Invest in an insurance policy that would allow one to be evacuated by air ambulance in case you have to be flown out of a country that is incapable of treating serious illness.

In many foreign countries, there are no hospitals for hundreds of miles, and often intensive care units are lacking staff and expertise to handle the complexities of a severe infection. Even in the U.S., nurses and physicians during the height of our pandemic have been in short supply. Understand the rules of engagement at the airport both on departure and arrival and most importantly look at medical facilities in the destination country. I look at this as analogous to looking for the exit sign of a large hotel so that you know what to do in case of a fire.

Ultimately, while it is safe to travel now if you are fully vaccinated, I still recommend following social distance and sanitation practices before, during, and after your travel. If you feel sick, don’t go. And if you are having large family gatherings around the holidays, I recommend everyone in attendance be fully vaccinated to ensure maximum safety.