This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Francisco De Jesus.
To have a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season, it’s important to consider the health effects of increased holiday travel, gatherings, and emerging COVID-19 variants. As a result, holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist can best prepare you for holiday air travel, auto travel and spending time celebrating with loved ones. In a recent interview, one of ID Care’s infectious disease doctors Francisco De Jesus, MD, explained getting vaccinated, masking, hand washing, and other risk-reducing, proactive safety measures to stay healthy while traveling for the holidays — as well as when to get tested, when to quarantine, and where to get the best treatment if you do experience a COVID holiday season infection.
Is It Safe to Visit Family or Vacation During the Holidays?
According to Dr. De Jesus, it is safe to travel and celebrate with loved ones if you follow basic infection-control procedures and COVID-specific travel advice. “Take the usual recommended precautions: getting fully vaccinated, masking, and hand washing. Plus, if possible, plan outdoor gatherings or meet in well-ventilated locations,” he said. The CDC agrees and offers their perspective here.
What Are the Risks of COVID Holiday Travel?
- Dr. De Jesus lists this season’s primary infectious disease travel risks as exposure to:
- Influenza (flu)
- Rhinovirus/common cold
Number one of the holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist is to do your part to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and these other contagious viral pathogens.
According to Dr. De Jesus, “COVID holiday travel comes with the risk of spreading the disease among loved ones, and we’ve also seen upticks in influenza, parainfluenza, and rhinovirus respiratory illnesses. Preventing the transmission of these diseases must be kept in mind during this holiday travel season.”
Preparing for a COVID-19 Holiday Season
The global consensus of infectious disease doctors is that vaccination against COVID-19, including full vaccination with second shots and booster shots as indicated, is by far the best way to prevent infection, serious symptoms, hospitalization, and death due to this pandemic virus. Flu vaccination is also an important part of staying healthy this season.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that you postpone traveling domestically or internationally until you are fully vaccinated, and that you check the situation at your destination before leaving so you’re aware of the latest pandemic-related restrictions or requirements. Likewise, do not travel if you are sick or if you test positive for COVID-19. If you must travel while unvaccinated, get tested before and after your journey.
Dr. De Jesus echoes the CDC’s advice, adding, “given the uptick in COVID and influenza numbers recently, we recommend everyone, vaccinated or not, wear a mask in all public areas and on any public transportation. Get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and influenza and wash your hands frequently.” In the United States, a mask that covers the mouth and nose is required for everyone over 2 two years of age on buses, planes, and boats, and indoors at transportation hubs such as airports and terminals.
After direct infection-control measures, the most important holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist include staying flexible and positive as you travel. Like the weather, policies and restrictions will continue to fluctuate and may change mid-trip, so plan for possible frustrations and don’t let them get the better of you.
The Omicron COVID-19 Variant
First identified after an unexpected rise in infections in South Africa in November of 2021, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has now appeared in the US and around the globe. At this early stage, it is not yet fully understood as data must be collected, but initial indications suggest it may be more easily transmitted than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and breakthrough infections are expected. However, current vaccines including boosters are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and death.
According to Dr. De Jesus, “so far, this variant has from 45 to 52 amino acid changes along with multiple mutations associated with resistance to neutralizing antibodies. It also shows increased transmissibility over the Alpha, Gamma, and Lambda variants.”
On the upside, Omicron may produce milder symptoms than previous variants. Dr. De Jesus advises that the same holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist that prevent flu and other variants of COVID-19 will work to minimize Omicron infection: vaccination, mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand sanitation.
Is Flying Safe? What Precautions Should Be Taken When Traveling by Plane?
According to Dr. De Jesus, “Flying is generally safe. Airlines are taking precautions to sanitize and clean passenger cabins prior to each flight, and if you are fully vaccinated and wearing a mask properly, your risk of infection is low.”
While COVID-19 is transmissible through contact with contaminated surfaces, proper hand cleaning can markedly reduce that chance. Dr. De Jesus advises that “a plane’s bathroom is a particularly heavily used area, so wash your hands when you come in and out and grab the doorknob with a clean napkin or tissue to avoid possibly re-contaminating your hand.”
Top 5 Tips for Safe Holiday Air Travel
Traveling domestically or internationally can be safe, depending on where you are flying. Some regions have higher rates of COVID-19 than others, and some localities are better than others when it comes to infection control procedures. Regardless, Dr. De Jesus advises that all the same precautions and advice for domestic holiday travel apply to international travel as well:
- Do not travel until you are fully vaccinated.
- Before travelling, check your destination’s COVID-19 situation and travel requirements.
- Wear a mask indoors, and it’s required on planes, buses, boats, and in public transportation hubs like airports and bus terminals.
- Wash or sanitize your hands frequently.
- Whether traveling internationally or domestically, when eating or drinking, try to minimize the amount of time your mask is removed.
Holiday Air Travel: International and Domestic
US citizens traveling internationally must follow the requirements of their plane, ship, or bus operators as well as the legal requirements at their destinations, including mask wearing and proof of vaccination, testing, or quarantine. Requirements may differ from those in the US, and if you do not follow your destination’s requirements, you may be denied entry and returned to the United States.
For those seeking to enter the United States, as of December 6, 2021, all air travelers are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within a day of boarding an America-bound flight.
ID Care offers comprehensive travel medicine consultations and vaccinations in its New Jersey practice locations to ensure travelers can prepare for safe travel abroad as well as domestically and feel confident that experts are accessible should you get sick while traveling or upon your return.
Are There Special Tips for Holiday Traveling with Children or Babies?
Masks are recommended while traveling in public for everyone over the age of two, but experts agree: do not mask children younger than two years old. With this youngest age group, masks tend to create more problems than they prevent.
The Pfizer vaccine is available for children aged five and older, but at this time no vaccine is approved for children younger than five years. “In the meantime,” Dr. De Jesus counsels, “the best we can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our most vulnerable groups is to follow these holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist, the most important being to get fully vaccinated.”
How to Protect Yourself from COVID-19 at a Hotel or Rental Home
All the standard infection control advice applies wherever you stay away from home, but you can also inquire in advance about the cleaning and sanitizing protocols of the hotel or rental home you are planning to stay at and look up online reviews. If the establishment seems lax in terms of infection control and safety measures, find a place that takes it seriously.
“When you go to common areas in hotels or rental units of any kind,” Dr. De Jesus recommends, “wear a mask and sanitize your hands frequently.”
What About Holiday Travel to Nursing Homes and Rehab Centers?
This year, some nursing homes and rehabilitation centers are allowing more family members to visit their loved ones, but these facilities have their own guidelines, so check with them directly before you decide to visit. ID Care recommends full vaccinations and boosters for all eligible residents, visitors, and staff at these institutions, and all guests should wear masks while visiting.
“If you feel sick or have been in contact with a COVID-infected person,” Dr. De Jesus advises, “do not go to a nursing home, extended care facility, or rehabilitation center to visit loved ones. Also, if there are active COVID-19 outbreaks at the facility you want to visit, postpone the visit until that outbreak is resolved.”
Is It Safe to Host Guests in Your Home for a Holiday Meal?
It is safe to host holiday gatherings keeping in mind the vaccination status of hosts and guests, hosting only symptom-free individuals, and following sanitizing and cleaning protocols. All of these can minimize transmission of COVID-19, as can the following suggestions for guests.
If you are an invited guest at a private holiday event, remember to:
- Be fully vaccinated, including boosters, prior to the gathering.
- Take an over-the-counter antigen test on the day of the event to know your COVID-19 status.
- Don’t attend if you test positive or feel sick.
- Sanitize or wash your hands frequently, especially before and after eating or drinking.
- If you are unvaccinated, wear a mask at the event.
When Should You Get Tested?
“If you are symptomatic,” warned Dr. De Jesus, “if you have fever, chills, body aches, cough, diarrhea, or loss of smell or taste, you should be tested for COVID-19. You should also test five to seven days after exposure to someone symptomatic or known to have COVID-19.”
Unlike the pandemic’s beginning in early 2020, reliable testing kits are now readily available, and home testing for COVID-19 is an important part of preventing the disease’s spread.
“Nowadays,” said Dr. De Jesus, “you can get antigen tests over the counter in pharmacies and supermarkets, which give results in about 20 minutes. Your doctor may also do molecular testing (PCR test), which takes a little longer.” If there is any question about your COVID-19 status, quick and available testing can prevent you from unknowingly spreading the disease while traveling. Be sure; get tested.
Can You Transmit COVID-19 If You’ve Tested Negative?
Dr. De Jesus warns that, “if you are unvaccinated and test negative but are actually positive, you can transmit the virus. Your test may have been conducted too early, before enough antigen was present to indicate that you were positive. These cases are generally rare and can be avoided by vaccination.”
When Should You Quarantine?
According to Dr. De Jesus, “you should quarantine if you’re sick or if you’ve been in close contact with a sick person, that is, within six feet of them for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. If you live with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, you should quarantine unless you’re fully vaccinated.”
Fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure unless they have symptoms. However, they should get tested five to seven days after the exposure, even with no symptoms. Dr. De Jesus also advises wearing masks indoors in public for 14 days following an exposure, or until your test results are negative for COVID-19.
When Should You See an ID Care Travel Medicine Specialist?
Before traveling internationally, Dr. De Jesus recommends having “a pre-travel consultation with ID Care to discuss food and water precautions, drugs to prevent malaria, diarrhea, and other conditions, as well as vaccines to prevent infectious diseases like cholera, hepatitis, and yellow fever. Each of our experienced travel medicine doctors are uniquely qualified to offer individualized holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist.”
He added, “it’s all going to be tailored to your specific needs and exactly where you’re planning on traveling, anywhere in the world. Contact us well in advance of your trip, because some vaccines take several months before they become effective.”
What is ID Care’s Role in Ensuring a Safe Holiday Season?
“First and foremost,” Dr. De Jesus affirmed, “we provide information and guidance, especially holiday travel tips from an infectious disease specialist. With all the uncertainty swirling, our role in ensuring a safe holiday season is to guide patients through the confusion, and to diagnose and treat COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses. We teach people which signs and symptoms to watch for and when to seek treatment. We also provide monoclonal antibody treatment to high-risk COVID-19 patients.”
As New Jersey’s largest infectious disease practice, ID Care is a leader in the prevention and treatment of all infectious diseases like COVID-19 and influenza, as well as other serious viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. To learn more about safe holiday travel this season, call 908-281-0221 or visit idcare.com to schedule an appointment today with an experienced ID Care infectious disease doctor.