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A lot of people come to me to ask about air travel. Especially as the holidays approach, people are eager to travel for visits with family and friends, and they want to know if it is safe. Quite simply, it’s not. I would only recommend travel due to emergencies. If you must travel, here are the things you should consider.

Weigh the risk. Before you start looking up flights, visit this site first. It is a map that shows the amount of COVID risk across the country. Think very carefully about traveling to areas that are red, orange, or yellow. Even green areas have virus. Good mitigation — including masking, distancing, and handwashing — is necessary, no matter where you go. Note also that indoor spaces, like airplanes, are among the riskiest places to be.

Weigh the payoff. Once you arrive in your destination, your visit with family might be less satisfying than in years past. Close in-person contact is not safe, unless you and those you are visiting are both planning quarantine for 2 weeks beforehand and after you return. Otherwise, you should be masked and distanced constantly during your visit, especially indoors. In addition, you should stay outdoors and keep visits short. We are learning from the CDC that several short exposures can be just as risky as one long one. So is it really worthwhile to go all that way? It may be just as satisfying to visit virtually or send a beautiful gift, rather than spending on a plane ticket and risking spreading a viral infection to your community.

If you have decided to travel by air, evaluate the airline. The airline should be offering distanced seating by ensuring at least one open seat between passengers. They should also be advertising their disinfection methods and advanced air filtering. These assurances are basic to safe travel during a pandemic.

As you prepare to fly, pick up a box of disposable medical-grade procedure masks and several small bottles of hand sanitizer. An N95 mask is not necessary, but the medical-grade masks are superior to even multiple-layer cotton masks and far superior to single-layer masks. Wash and sanitize your hands very frequently from the moment you get to the airport and throughout the trip.

Mitigate. Once on board, stay as far away as possible from other passengers. Keep your mask up. Don’t eat. Lower mask quickly to drink water and put it right back up again.

Many people are interested in whether shorter trips are better than longer trips. if you are within driving distance, it would be safer to take a private car with members of your household. If you are traveling with people other than those you live with, a private car may be less safe, depending on how well you and your passengers adhere to masking and hand hygiene recommendations.

Many people are putting a lot of faith in airline screening. It was reported in the media recently that airlines have screened a million passengers. While I appreciate the effort, apart from identifying those who are actively ill, the protection gained by screening to the degree airlines are doing so is not yet established.

As an infectious disease specialist, I cannot responsibly endorse travel during a pandemic. The safest thing for both you and those you would like to visit is to stay home. If you choose to go anyway, please be extra careful to follow all of the other precautions. Even the precautions will not protect you entirely, but they are the best protection travelers can get.

Marie George, MD, is the infectious disease specialist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.


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