Should masks on planes stay? 4 experts on covid travel precautions to follow.
So should we prepare to travel as if it were 2019 again?
Not quite — and maybe not ever, said health experts interviewed by The Washington Post.
“The pandemic, whether we want to believe it or not, is still ongoing,” said Michael Mina, epidemiologist and chief scientific officer at eMed, which offers monitored rapid tests for home use.
In the United States, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases has fallen significantly from the omicron peak and well below the numbers seen during the delta surge. But new infections are higher than they were for much of 2020 and 2021. As hospitalizations and deaths decline, Washington Post data shows that the average number of new daily deaths in the country is nearly 2,300, and nearly 69,000 are hospitalized with covid-19.
Doctors say travelers should determine the level of risk they’re comfortable taking based on their own medical condition, especially as certain rules fall.
But as the surge subsides, experts warn that any return to normal will not be the same as before the pandemic. Leading infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said we’ll have to “live” with something that won’t be eradicated.”
Or as Gigi Gronvall, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security put it: “2019 no longer exists.”
As travel restrictions ease around the world, experts have offered strategies on what precautions to take – and where we can return to some normality.
“I don’t think I will ever stop wearing a mask in airports”
The federal mask mandate for airports, airplanes and other forms of mass transit is in place until at least March 18. But even when masking is no longer needed, Mina said, it makes a lot of sense to keep doing it at airports, where people congregate from many different places.
He said that even if travelers come from a place where the number of coronavirus cases is low, they have no idea where the people around them are coming from.
“I don’t think I will ever stop wearing a mask in airports,” he said.
Gronvall said some people may be ready to eat indoors again as cases drop.
“But if you’re in a tight crowd with strangers and you’re not eating or drinking right now… personally, I’m going to wear a mask,” she said. She also pointed out that wearing a mask could continue to be useful as protection against other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu.
“People should take precautions with people they know are immunocompromised”
Henry Wu, associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory TravelWell Center, is preparing to travel to Hawaii to visit his parents, who are thought to be at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus. He said he planned to take a coronavirus test before seeing them extra cautious.
“If you are visiting fragile family members, be especially careful before visiting them,” he said. Traveling with children who aren’t yet old enough to be vaccinated should also warrant extra precautions, he said.
Regardless of their own medical condition, Gronvall said, travelers should keep in mind the most vulnerable people they will encounter.
“People should take precautions with people they know are immunocompromised,” she said.
And Wu said people who are themselves more at risk should consider what treatments might be available to them abroad if they were to catch the virus.
“That’s an important consideration because even if you’re vaccinated and it’s unlikely you’ll die from the infection, if you’re someone trying to get those treatments, it can be difficult to travel in this moment,” he said.
“I think it’s a pretty low demand for people to test themselves before they travel”
One of the biggest recent changes for travelers has been the decision by several countries to scrap pre-arrival testing for vaccinated visitors. But experts say it might be a good idea to do a precautionary test – or bring tests with you when travelling.
Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, said it’s a good idea to do “due diligence” before traveling if someone has recently been exposed.
And, she said, travelers should think about the end of their journey; a negative test is required to return to the United States.
“We’re really focused on the destination, but not always on getting home, which can be difficult for some,” Popescu said.
Mina said he thinks testing even before domestic flights, which may not require testing, is good practice.
“As long as testing is available, which it usually is…I think that’s pretty low demand for people to test themselves before they travel,” he said.
Mina said it makes particular sense to take a test when traveling from a place with a high number of cases to a destination with a very low number. He also suggested bringing a “just because” test.
“If you land somewhere and two days later with a scratchy throat and sniffles, you might want to know, ‘Was that covid? Did I pick this up? he said.
“A booster shot is definitely a good idea”
Experts say travelers should be up to date on their vaccinations, which means getting a booster once eligible.
“The real advice for travelers is no matter what, vaccination is by far… the most important thing you can do,” Wu said. “And clearly the booster makes a big difference.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine may decline over time, especially in older people. Clinical trials have shown that a booster helps prevent serious illness, the agency said.
“A booster shot is definitely a good idea,” Gronvall said. “And if someone has already received omicron, I would wait a few months and then I would receive a booster.”
“It depends a lot on the place”
Instead of treating each destination the same, travelers should consider the situation they’re traveling to, Gronvall said, and whether the number of cases is high. In some parts of the world, the number of vaccines is low and the disease continues to spread.
“It depends a lot on the location,” she said.
“Even though the restrictions are relaxed, if you’re still seeing significant community transmission, you want to be aware of that,” she said.
Popescu added, “If you’re indoors in an area with low community transmission, I think that’s very different from indoors in a very crowded space where you still see a lot of community spread.”
“Mix and match as needed”
While some travelers might want to lay down hard and fast rules on safety precautions, experts point out that people can draw on the tools they’ve amassed over the past two years if the situation calls for it.
“Masking, avoiding crowded areas, these are all tools we can use and mix and match as needed,” Wu said.
Mina said he “actively chooses not to go to really crowded places.” But if it made sense to go to dinner for a business meeting, he would. Decreasing the risk as much as possible — even if not 100% of the time — can still be beneficial, he said.
“It doesn’t have to be an intermittent thing,” Mina said.
“It will come back”
As countries and states ease some rules, experts warn travelers should expect restrictions to return if the pandemic worsens again.
Mina said authorities should create dynamic policies that address the reality of the virus in real time — whether that’s relaxing rules when cases are low or reinstating them when infections rise.
“This virus is going to be seasonal; it will come back,” he said.
Wu said that means there will be times when more precautions need to be taken and times when travelers can let their guard down a bit.
“We are not returning to the previous normal,” he said. “I think the new normal is using these tools to protect us.”
He and others warned there could always be new variants, though Wu said he hoped they wouldn’t be more threatening as the world gains immunity.
“There’s no guarantee, despite the frantic transmission we have around the world, that we won’t have to learn extra letters of the Greek alphabet,” Gronvall said.