Drive? Fly? Keep house? The exhausting choices behind pandemic vacation gatherings

“The advice I have given to my patients is that this is the year you need to consider visiting your family,” said Julita Mir, internist and infectious disease specialist with the nonprofit Community Care Cooperative. “Put it in perspective. Weigh the value against the possible consequences. Even with the best of intentions, traveling to see mom or grandma could be the worst. Perhaps the best you can do is find an alternative celebration. “

Dr. Julita Mir, who specializes in infectious diseases at the Community Care Cooperative, provides advice on vacation travel during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

AAA estimated that more than 55 million Americans covered 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving in 2019. For the past several years, travel polls, polls, and estimates have centered on the number of Americans who would travel rather than the size or type of the gatherings themselves. However, due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, travel surveys are also different. Gone are the worries of when airports and highways will be most crowded. Instead, it is how many see their loved ones and how big those gatherings will be. Despite Dr. Anthony Fauci to Americans that “you may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice this social gathering,” a Morning Consult poll last month found that 53 percent of respondents plan to move on with their vacation celebrations. The rest said they have already canceled or changed their gatherings because of the virus. Another study of Bridgestone tires found that 51 percent were planning on dating an extended family.

Scientists’ Dire predictions don’t prevent patients from surprising their doctors with questions like “What is the safest way to travel?” “Should I quarantine before I travel?” “Should I get tested before I go?” “Should I get tested when I get home?” “Can I get infected again if I already had the virus?”

Dr.  Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

“I’m an epidemiologist in an organization of 7,000 people and I get almost every question you might ask yourself about COVID every day,” said Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor at Tufts Medical Center. “When it comes to travel and pretty much everything else, everyone’s risk tolerance is different and there is no single answer. With all of this, it is clear that a lot of people plan to travel. “

Also, remember that travel is only part of the vacation risk. Indoor parties where people drop their masks after a drink or two and start talking tightly and loudly have become a common breeding ground for the virus.

“It’s probably not a good idea to have a big indoor gathering for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year,” said Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s exactly how it goes this season. All you need is one person at this type of party to be contagious and you have multiple infected people. Then people travel home and continue to spread to other parts of the country. “

Dr.  Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist, poses for a portrait on the Harvard Medical School campus.


Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist, poses for a portrait on the Harvard Medical School campus.

Jessica Rinaldi / Globe Staff

While airports, buses, and trains will be far emptier and quieter than in previous years, the number of travelers has increased in the past two months, giving the virus an opportunity to find hosts at airports. and other places where people gather. Earlier this week, the TSA examined more than 1 million passengers in a single day, most since March 16. That number will inevitably rise through Thanksgiving and Christmas, but will fall well short of the record of 115 million Americans who traveled for the holidays in 2019.

The dozen epidemiologists and doctors interviewed for this story didn’t have easy answers for those who wanted to travel to see loved ones for the holidays. There are no zero risk scenarios unless you want to hermetically seal your home and party over Zoom or with your cat. When it comes to travel modes, there is no perfect option. According to Diego Hijano, an infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, traveling in a car with people you live with may be one of the safest ways to get to your destination.

“One thing that is helpful when you are traveling by car is to pack your own food before heading out to minimize stops,” said Hijano. “If you have to stop to get gasoline or use the toilet, follow the rules on mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing.”

The exception to the driving rule is that your destination requires overnight hotel stays. In this case, Hijano said flying – non-stop if possible – was a safer alternative than driving and stopping at one or more hotels.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have renounced air travel, fearing that virus particles could be returned to a confined space (fresh air enters the cabin several times a minute and is circulated through hospital-grade HEPA filters) or that it might take COVID-19 by touching surfaces. A study by United Airlines and the Department of Defense earlier this month found that the risk of COVID-19 exposure on airplanes is “virtually non-existent” when all passengers are masked. The study did not take into account passengers taking off their masks to eat or speak. The possible exposure of passengers to the virus upon reaching the airport or while waiting to board a plane was also not taken into account.

The study result does not have all the experts who hurry to book places.

“I think flying is very dangerous,” said William Haseltine, a scientist, writer, and philanthropist who is perhaps best known for his work on HIV and AIDS research. He has already written two books on coronavirus, “A Family Guide to COVID” and “A COVID Back to School Guide”. “I tell people to only fly when they have to. I know there are people out there who would tell you it’s not that dangerous, but there are real, documented cases of people catching COVID on flights. “

Another danger when flying, Haseltine says, is going through the airport, especially the TSA checkpoint. In July, it was revealed that more than 1,000 TSA agents tested positive for COVID-19.

“They touch bags all day, they don’t change gloves often, and they reach in and touch your personal items,” he said. “The answer is to wear as little as possible and to wipe all of your personal belongings with gloves.”

Despite his cautious attitude towards flying, Haseltine said he would choose to take a plane for a long drive with several hotel stops along the way. During the flight, Haseltine said he would be wearing an N95 mask, goggles and gloves. He’s also a proponent of plastic face shields to be worn with a mask, both on a flight and in places where you are in close proximity to others.

“There is good evidence that doctors and nurses who wear face shields in addition to masks have reduced their chances of infection to near zero,” he said. “I don’t think people understand exactly why, but there are some theories. For one thing, you don’t touch your face that much. Another theory is that with a shield, you won’t get infected through your eyes. It’s good for everyday use, but very important when traveling. “

Further questions about vacation travel? The experts say there is no end. Are You Immune If You Already Had the Virus? The short answer probably isn’t. Many have asked their doctors if they should be tested by loved ones before visiting, thinking that if everyone is tested, everyone will be safe. Law?

Is not it.

Karan said the test was a snapshot of the moment. Someone could be exposed to the virus, and if the exposure is a day or two before the test, they can still be negative. Haseltine recommends getting tested three days before departure and then the day before departure.

Pre-departure quarantine can help, although Doron said travelers could encounter the virus on their way to their final destination. Hijano said you could arrive at a relative’s house to quarantine yourself before a vacation, but what are the chances that you can stay in a room away from your brother or father for two weeks without hugging them? When you get it all right, Fauci’s advice to “sacrifice this social gathering” makes more and more sense. If trying to celebrate the holidays amid COVID-19 sounds like a mess, that’s because it is.

Perhaps the best advice for dealing with the 2020 holidays comes from Lloyda Williamson, who is the director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Research at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where she is also a professor.

“We’re all tired, but to survive the pandemic we have to persist,” she said. “It’s about delayed gratification, and as Americans, that’s not a concept we like. We live in a society in which we are used to things moving quickly and changing quickly. However, we cannot control it in this way. We just have to understand that. As I said, delayed gratification saves lives. “

Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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