Planning A Spring Break? These 5 Tips Can Help Minimize Risk

Mar 14, 2021
Originally published on March 15, 2021 9:56 pm

If you long to see loved ones or dip your toes in the sand, you're not alone.

It's been over a year since the pandemic locked down most of the U.S., and despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid nonessential travel, more Americans are now on the go — booking flights and planning vacations.

And whether you've been vaccinated or not, there are strategies that can reduce the risks of COVID-19 if you do plan to get away.

First things first:

The CDC recently changed its guidelines to greenlight small gatherings between people who've been vaccinated and those who haven't. So now, many older adults — who were first in line for vaccination — feel a newfound freedom to visit their friends, children and grandchildren.

But what if your loved ones live a plane ride or car trip away?

"I would say if you're fully vaccinated and you want to visit children or grandchildren who are not [vaccinated], it's reasonable to make the trip," says Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Given the risks of isolation and loneliness, visiting loved-ones, "I think that actually counts as essential travel at this point, from a mental health standpoint," Landon says.

The CDC's overall guidance to discourage travel is understandable given that the majority of people in the U.S. are not vaccinated yet and the virus is still circulating widely, Landon says. But the key is to take precautions.

If you are considering a spring get-away, "there are ways to do a family vacation safely," says Dr. Judith Guzman-Cottrill, an infectious disease expert at Oregon Health & Science University, who plans to take a spring break trip, by car, with her husband and two children.

Amid the ongoing pandemic there's no such thing as zero risk, but the extent of the threat depends on the choices you make. "There are safer ways and less safe ways to travel," she says.

So, before you head out, consider these 5 strategies to navigate spring travel.

1. Evaluate the risks

It's important to take precautions, because there's still an ongoing risk of infection.

"We know that it's possible for people who have been vaccinated to become infected and it may be possible for them to transmit the virus to others," explains Dr. William Miller of The Ohio State University.

A growing body of evidence suggests the risk of transmitting virus is low after vaccination, but as the science evolves, it's best to err on the side of caution, especially as more contagious variants circulate.

"When vaccinated people travel, we worry, first, that they might bring an infection to the people they travel to [see] or second, bring an infection back from wherever they travel," Miller says.

So, in order to minimize the risks of travel, consider both your mode of transportation and the activities you choose once you arrive.

2. Plane, train or automobile

The virus spreads when people are in close contact, and it's harder to limit contact in an airport or other busy transportation hubs. So, a car ride is lower risk than a train or plane, "simply because the traveler will encounter fewer people," Miller says.

But, even on a flight, you can minimize risks by wearing a mask (even if you're fully vaccinated) and avoiding crowds at the airport.

So, plan ahead: Eat a meal before you travel and pack snacks so you're not waiting in lines. Print tickets and boarding passes before you go, (or have them ready to display on your mobile device) and, if possible, bring carry-on luggage only, so you won't need to wait in lines to check bags. And remember to wash or sanitize your hands frequently.

Airlines do a good job of filtering and circulating the plane's air, and masks add an additional layer of protection.

"The mask needs to stay on from the time you leave your house until the time you get to your destination, says Emily Landon, and it should fit snugly — with no gaps on the side.

"I prefer the N95 masks," says Dr. Zeke Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania. If you follow these precautions, the flight can be "a relatively low-risk activity," says Dr. Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician at Indiana University School of Medicine.

3. Set limits — it's not time for a big reunion

If you plan to travel to visit family members, your relatives may be tempted to plan a big gathering. But it's too soon for extended family reunions, says Guzman-Cottrill.

"When groups gather and not all of the people are vaccinated, it puts unvaccinated people at risk," she explains.

For now, it's best to limit get-togethers and take extra precautions if unvaccinated people who are at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 are included.

"I would recommend staying outdoors where you have good ventilation," including for meals, says Emanuel. Outdoors is always safer than indoors, thanks to to the natural airflow.

And if you are traveling with friends, the same rules apply. If you're not yet vaccinated — as is the case with most young adults — it's best to travel with people you live with or those who have been in your social bubble.

If you stick with this small group, and rent a vacation house together or go on a camping trip, "that sounds reasonably safe," says Carroll. No trip is either 100% safe or completely unsafe, he says. "You can do things more safely or less safely," depending on the choices you make during the trip.

So, when you're out and about, it's best to wear a mask, avoid crowds and remember to wash hands frequently.

4. Stay with the people you came with

If you're venturing out with children, make sure they know that COVID-19 precautions are still in place and will influence some of your vacation choices. Going to a quiet stretch of beach or campground, for example, where there's plenty of personal space, is safer than choosing a crowded resort. (And the same advice holds true for Florida-bound college students!)

Throughout the season, ski resorts have used this chairlift guidance: Ride with people you came with; this is a good general principle for any vacation. It's not time to be cheek by jowl with strangers.

Guzman-Cottrill says her family plans to do some spring skiing, but they will stay by themselves in a condo.

"We'll either cook [meals] on our own or get carryout," she says, "and I feel like it's a safe plan."

And whether you are with family or friends, if you do stay in a hotel, try to limit time in the communal areas; it's safest to avoid the gym. When people work out they breathe hard and that increases the risk of virus transmission.

If you haven't yet been vaccinated "it's not really safe to go to the gym yet," says Miller. Consider outdoor alternatives, such as biking, running or taking a walk.

5. Avoid destinations that have lifted restrictions

Many colleges have canceled their traditional week-long spring breaks, but this isn't stopping some students who are eager for a quick getaway. Already, some have begun crowding beaches in Clearwater Beach, Fla.

"Getting on a plane to travel to an enormous gathering or party where tons of other people are flying from all over the place" is a bad idea, that could lead to the spread of the virus Carroll says. "And then bringing it back home is even worse."

The more crowded a destination, the more potential spread, because you can't control the behavior of people around you. So, aim to avoid places that have relaxed coronavirus restrictions too abruptly.

"I would not go to Texas," says Emily Landon given the lifting of the state mask mandate. In Florida, the state is open for business and has no statewide mask mandate or travel restrictions, which has put local leaders in a tough position.

"If you're going to come here, enjoy our beaches, dine outdoors, wear a mask and be smart," Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber tells NPR. " But if you think it's 'anything goes,' " he says, 'just don't come here," he says.

Remember, this isn't forever. President Biden has said by July 4, everyone should be comfortable holding small gatherings. The holiday will not only mark our independence as a nation, the President said, it will "mark our independence from this virus."

Infectious disease experts say if we hang on and continue taking precautions, as more Americans get vaccinated, this is realistic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Spring break is supposed to be fun, but this year it's also complicated. Yes, the pace of COVID-19 vaccine is picking up, but the CDC is still discouraging nonessential travel. You might not know it, though, looking at the nation's airports this weekend. About 1.3 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints Friday. That's the busiest day for air travel since a year ago. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with the very latest. Allison, let's start with the vaccinations. How much progress has there been?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Sure. About 70 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of vaccine. And, A., if you look at the 65-and-up population, it's nearly two-thirds. So, you know, more vaccinations, warmer weather coming - people are on the go. But it is worth noting there are still thousands of new coronavirus cases a day, as more contagious variants circulate, and many unvaccinated people are still at risk of infection.

MARTINEZ: I'd like to go, too, but I don't.

AUBREY: Right.

MARTINEZ: No, so what precautions is the CDC recommending people take?

AUBREY: The CDC recently changed its guidelines to greenlight small gatherings between people who have been vaccinated and those who have not. So many older adults who were first in line for vaccination feel the freedom now to visit children and grandchildren. This is easier to do if you live in the same town, right?

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

AUBREY: But if you got to travel, despite the CDC guidance to avoid nonessential travel, several infectious disease experts tell me they're OK with this if people are careful. Here is Dr. Emily Landon. She's an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago.

EMILY LANDON: I think it is time for people to begin, especially older adults who haven't seen family in such a long time - I think that actually counts as essential travel at this point from a mental health standpoint. And so I would say that it's totally fine for vaccinated older adults to very carefully take trips in order to see family.

AUBREY: And what she means by carefully, A., is that even if you're fully vaccinated, you continue to wear a mask, you continue to avoid crowds as much as possible and keep your hands clean. So bring that sanitizer.

MARTINEZ: If everyone did that, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in right now. So remind us why vaccinated people need to continue to take these precautions. I mean, are they protected, technically, against COVID-19?

AUBREY: Yes, the vaccines are very effective at preventing serious illness, but the question that is not completely answered is whether vaccinated people could become infected and perhaps spread it. The risk appears to be quite low, but that's why people need to continue to take precautions. And so when it comes to travel, think about this - the flight or the train ride or the bus ride, it's only part of the risk. Here is infectious disease doctor Judy Guzman-Cottrill of Oregon Health and Science University.

JUDITH GUZMAN-COTTRILL: So when someone flies to another city to finally see their elderly vaccinated parents, their arrival can also turn into a reason for a family gathering. And when there is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated members of that family, then they should have their meals and be gathering outdoors as much as possible because, still, the guidance is that outdoors is always safer than indoors.

AUBREY: And that's because there's airflow.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

AUBREY: Fresh air is constantly moving.

MARTINEZ: Now, we're all wondering about family vacations. Since most young people are not yet vaccinated, is it safe to take a trip with the kids?

AUBREY: You know, if you set expectations so that the kids realize COVID precautions are still in place, Guzman-Cottrill says it's a reasonable decision. She says she's planning a road trip by car with her husband and two kids coming up.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: We're going to drive. We're going to stay in a condo. We'll either cook on our own or get carryout out for every meal. And I feel like it's a safe plan, including with my two unvaccinated children.

AUBREY: So a key principle here is, A., stick with the people in your own household, mask up when you're out, and avoid crowds. So the quiet campground or beach might be safer than a packed resort.

MARTINEZ: All right, what about groups of friends who are eager to get away?

AUBREY: You know, the same principles apply here. And it's not so much the decision to travel, A., as it is the choices you make while you travel that determine the risk. I spoke to Dr. Aaron Carroll at Indiana University about this.

AARON CARROLL: Safety is not a binary thing where, you know, something is either 100% safe or 100% unsafe. You can do things more safely or less safely. If you are driving with, you know, people that you're already living with to another location where you're still just being with them, perhaps spending a lot of time outside, that sounds reasonably safe.

AUBREY: On the other hand, not a good idea to go, say, with a big group to a destination filled with crowded bars. Many universities have canceled the traditional weeklong spring break to help prevent this.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, spring break and good choices don't always go hand in hand.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTINEZ: But there are already numerous reports of crowded beaches in Florida and in Texas. So how are officials there responding?

AUBREY: You know, officials in Daytona Beach, in Miami Beach, encourage social distancing and masking. But this is really hard to enforce, and we saw some of this over the weekend. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says already too many people are coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAN GELBER: If you're coming here to do anything and you think this is an anything-goes place, just don't come here. Please go somewhere else. And if you're going to come here, enjoy our beaches and dine outdoors and wear the mask and be smart. We all want to be safer.

AUBREY: So in other words, he's sort of begging people to be on their best behavior.

MARTINEZ: So what are they afraid of, then? That this kind of travel could cause another surge?

AUBREY: You know, that's right. I mean, there has been a plateau in the decline of new cases after weeks of very precipitous drops. And public health experts are saying, look; it is our behavior in these coming weeks that will determine the outcome here. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS yesterday the variants that are circulating do pose a challenge, but he said he's optimistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think the combination of a lot of prior infection and the fact that we're vaccinating aggressively now, as we get into April, the situation around the country is going to look markedly better. But there will be pockets of outbreaks, and there will be pockets where some of these variants become more prevalent.

AUBREY: And that's why this is not the time to let our guards down. You know, when I speak to infectious disease experts, what I hear again and again and again is, look; there is light at the end of the tunnel, right?

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

AUBREY: We are so close. But for now, we all need to do our part, and so this means continuing to do the things that we've been hearing for so long now - continuing to mask, even if you are vaccinated, you know, continuing to avoid crowds and continuing to, you know, practice good hand hygiene.

MARTINEZ: So close. We're almost there. That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Yeah, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "WHEN THE BODY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.