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Still Considering A Summer Getaway? Tips For Reducing Your Risk During The Pandemic

Public health experts say it's safest to stay home during the pandemic. But what precautions should you take if you do decide to travel?
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Public health experts say it's safest to stay home during the pandemic. But what precautions should you take if you do decide to travel?

After isolating at home for months, some Missouri residents are contemplating escape.

Public health experts are urging people to stay home during the pandemic, particularly as COVID-19 cases spike in cities nationwide. Still, millions of Americans are expected to travel this summer, mostly by car

No trip is truly risk-free — but if you do decide to travel in the coming months, how can you reduce your chances of catching and spreading the coronavirus?

St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan spoke with Dr. Christelle Ilboudo, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, about special precautions travelers should take during the pandemic.

What should travelers take into account when deciding whether to travel?

Dr. Christelle Ilboudo: Psychologically, people are getting tired, and it's only natural to want to get away and go out. The first step is really, ‘How much risk am I willing to tolerate?’ And that has to do with our own health conditions, but also the health conditions of the people around you. So even if we get sick and we get better, can we potentially take [the virus] back to somebody who may not fare so well? We have to be able to live with the virus to some degree, and we have to be able to manage the risk that we take. A lot of it has to do with thinking of other people and how your actions impact your community. 

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people who are older than 65, so I would definitely recommend older individuals avoid traveling if they can. Also, people with certain chronic health conditions, especially respiratory conditions, and people with lung issues should really check with their doctors.

Also, when it comes to medical care, you should check with your insurance provider to make sure that you’ll be covered or have a plan for seeking care that is going to be affordable to you if you get sick.

Are there some forms of travel that are safer than others? Is it better to drive or to fly?

Ilboudo: I don't know that we can necessarily say one is less risky. If you're going to do a road trip, for example, and have a bunch of other people with you, then it defeats the purpose. It's really limiting the size of the group you are with to small groups of people that you can also keep track of over time. The biggest issue is really if one of those people in the group or crowd that you're in gets sick, would you have a way of knowing whether you're exposed to them or not? 

For example, when we talk about flying, a lot of airline companies [have] requirements in place for mask wearing, and they do health screening. But the risk of flying with people that we don't know is higher than the risk of driving in our car with people that we do know [and] that we live with. So I can't say one mode is better than the other, but looking at the risk overall, it seems like car traveling or road trips with family members seems to be the safest at this point.

Credit Meredith Miotke | NPR

What precautions should a person take when planning a road trip?

Ilboudo: [They] should make sure that they're not taking the infection with them. One of the best ways to do that is two weeks prior to traveling, make sure that they quarantine themselves as much as possible. So watching where they're going to avoid the risk of getting infected and taking that infection where they're going.

The shorter distance you have to travel the better, especially if you have family with young children. You have to think about rest stops [and] bathroom breaks and where you're going to be taking those. You have to think about where you're going to be stopping to eat. Can you bring your own food potentially or limit yourself to drive-thrus or outdoor spaces? For families traveling and how many stops they have to make along the way, [that] increases the chances of them getting exposed to other individuals who may be infected that they can't keep track of over time.

Are there special precautions airline travelers should take?

Ilboudo: When we think about traveling, the highest risk is really congregating in small spaces, especially indoor spaces. While traveling, I would definitely recommend wearing masks and practicing lots of hand hygiene on the way. Avoid eating in crowded places if you have to stop at an airport, and bring in your own food if you can. 

The other factor is where are you going to be stopping in between. Some of the earlier transmissions that we saw were in busy airports. So if there's no way to limit your exposure to individuals, and you don't have a good way of knowing if they get sick … I would avoid or limit that kind of traveling. So really thoughtfully thinking about not just, ‘I want to go here and this is how I'm going to get there,’ but the environment along the way. When they arrive at their destination, the same thing applies. Avoid crowded areas that may increase their exposure risk.

For international travel, look at the country where you’re going and whether or not they have restrictions. For example, I know that some countries quarantine people for 14 days, if they're coming from what they deem to be a high-transmission area. If you're going to be quarantined for two weeks, then that defeats the purpose of travel. 

Credit Meredith Miotke | NPR

What should travelers do when staying at a hotel or an Airbnb?

Ilboudo: Hotels and Airbnbs have very good guidance from the health department as to how to keep the facilities clean, and they also should have protocols in place in case someone is infected. One of the ways that you can get prepared is to ask that place what their plan is, if they had an infected person stay there and their cleaning procedures. I think some of the best things that I've seen is when there are clear guidelines as to how long they wait when people check out before someone else can check in to allow for cleaning.

I would definitely recommend wiping down commonly used surfaces. Doorknobs are always something that gets touched, counters, the things that people may forget to clean. Telephones that come close to the face should be cleaned, and the TV remote also is something that people don't think about.

As far as the bedspread, I don't know that I have personally seen evidence that bedding or cotton fabric surfaces retain the virus. But I do know hard surfaces and highly touched surfaces … can be cleaned and wiped down to limit the exposure.

Given the rise of COVID-19 cases across the country, should travelers be careful about when or where they go?

Ilboudo: I think we can safely say that the coronavirus is everywhere, so I wouldn't say that any place is 100% safe. As the rates are going up in some areas, I would avoid traveling to those areas to limit the exposure. The higher the rate where you’re going, the higher the risk.

Definitely look at being flexible in your timeline and also being flexible in your final destination. Again, avoiding busy places, crowded places, especially places that have their rates going higher would be recommended at this point. The things that I've seen work for people is if you can go to a more secluded area. So for example, going to small resorts or cabins in the woods, where they are not necessarily popular destinations or they're destinations that don't cater to thousands of people at the same time.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.