How To Travel As Safely As Possible During The Holidays (If You Have To)

Public health experts and epidemiologists strongly recommend that Americans do not travel for the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. For those that must travel—such as college students who cannot stay on campus—a few recent reports offer tips for traveling as safely as possible, to minimize the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, some of the biggest transmission risks are airports, train stations, and highway rest stops where “it can be difficult to stay six feet away from others.” When it comes to air travel, experts recommend sitting in window seats and away from restrooms. The report quotes a University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist who said, “you want to sit as far away from the toilets as much as possible, which would minimize how often you’re near passengers walking past you…You want to be as far away from that action as possible.” He also advised that travelers fly with airlines that are leaving middle seats unoccupied.

An analysis in Scientific American notes that the risk of Covid-19 transmission while flying “comes down to how closely one sits to other people and for how long, whether or not everyone is wearing a mask, and how infectious any passengers are at the time.” Travelers can mitigate the risk of catching Covid-19 from a fellow passenger—which increases on longer flights, and when passengers are unmasked—by sitting far away from other people and traveling only in situations where everyone is wearing a mask. One benefit of air travel is that “planes have excellent high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that capture more than 99 percent of particles in the air, including microbes as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID.” A plane’s recirculation system may circulate outside air as many as 30 times an hour, reducing the risk of airborne spread. as one expert told Scientific American, “An airplane cabin is probably one of the most secure conditions you can be in.” Nonetheless, there are still risks, especially when passengers take off their masks—for instance, while eating—and when they congregate in airports before traveling.

When it comes to bus travel, Scientific American notes that buses are often equipped with HVAC systems bolstered by the benefit of opened windows, which circulate outside air through the cabin. The frequent stops made by city buses enhances this benefit even further, introducing outside air each time the doors open. Experts advise that bus travelers, like airline travelers, should sit next to the window. They should also ensure that their bus system comes with “a mask requirement, good ventilation and adequate spacing between passengers.” They can take additional safety steps by trying to take only short trips. Experts advise that while partitions between drivers and passengers help mitigate the spread of viral droplets, they do little to mitigate the spread of airborne particles.

Health experts note that car travel can pose a high risk of transmission, because “Vehicles are small enclosed spaces where COVID-19 can spread easily between people,” as San Francisco health officials put it. They recommend that people traveling by car only travel in vehicles with people they share a household with.  If travelers must share a vehicle with people they don’t live with—for instance, if they’re taking a taxi or ride share—they should “try to ride with the same people each time, make sure everyone wears a face covering and open the windows to maximize outdoor air circulation as much as you can.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, experts recommend that college students traveling home for the holiday get tested twice: once before they leave, and another after they get home, ideally about three days apart. As the Times puts it, “A single negative test is not proof that someone is not infected. If a person is tested shortly after becoming infected and before the virus has reproduced enough copies of itself, a test could fail to detect the virus and produce a false negative result.”

People traveling by car should finally be sure to get a vehicle checkup and perform any necessary maintenance in advance of the trip, to reduce the chance that they might have to stop while traveling and interact with people outside their households.

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