After a full calendar year of social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands, it’s small wonder that many of us are feeling desperate for an escape. But is it OK to travel for leisure yet? How safe is it right now to fly on a plane or sail on a cruise ship? After all, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many parts of the country and around the globe, and herd immunity has yet to be achieved.
“There is less risk now for vaccinated people, but that doesn’t mean it’s zero,” says Chief Infection Control Officer Roy Chemaly, M.D. “The pandemic is ongoing, so most of the same rules that applied at the beginning of the pandemic still apply now.”
New guidance if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19
“Some patient populations won’t be as responsive to the vaccine, because their immune systems are not as robust,” notes Chemaly. “That means they may only be partially protected, or not protected at all. So, it’s critical for them to keep doing the same things they have been doing: social distancing, washing their hands, wearing a mask, and limiting non-essential travel.”
Which COVID-19 precautions haven’t changed
While some travel may be necessary for medical care, it’s still best to put off leisure or non-essential travel that involves spending time among large groups of unrelated people in close quarters — whether it’s at an airport terminal or on a cruise ship. That’s true regardless of their vaccination status – or yours. And international travel is also a bad idea, especially since the U.S. Department of State just added 112 countries to the list of places to avoid due to widespread COVID-19.
The reason? Because even at its most effective, vaccination only reduces your chances of contracting, developing a severe case of, requiring hospitalization for, or dying of COVID-19. It doesn’t eliminate them altogether.
“And reducing risk is not the same thing as eliminating it,” notes Chemaly. “There’s still a small chance that you could catch COVID-19 at an airport or pass it along to someone else. And cruise ships should still be avoided entirely, as it’s almost impossible to maintain social distancing under those conditions.”
Even if you’re not as concerned as you once were about contracting the virus yourself, many other people still are, and they may not have had an opportunity to be vaccinated yet. They may also be immunocompromised — and, therefore, still at increased risk — despite having been fully vaccinated. So, it’s important to remain vigilant, both as a good neighbor and a responsible citizen, if only to ease the burden on frontline health care workers and prevent medical systems from becoming overwhelmed.
“Right now, it’s all about decreasing transmission,” Chemaly says. “COVID-19 remains an issue worldwide. And while your risk of becoming seriously ill is dramatically lower once you’re fully vaccinated, even vaccinated people can get COVID-19 as long as there is circulating virus,.”
Some good news for aspiring air travelers
The good news is that there have been some positive developments.
For one thing, “the data show that it’s a bit safer than we initially thought for people to be on an airplane together,” Chemaly says. So, the risk of catching COVID-19 during a flight while wearing a mask is fairly low.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 by touching something on the plane is also not very high. “There’s really not much evidence at all for transmission of COVID-19 through surface contact,” Chemaly says. “The highest incidence is from droplet exposure, followed by airborne, which is pretty rare, too.”
Still, a small risk does exist, especially if you take off your mask to eat or drink anything while still on the plane — particularly if you don’t wash your hands first. A flight taken anywhere also means spending time among hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers at airport terminals and baggage carousels, increasing your chances of exposure. So, keep that in mind when considering your vacation plans.
“Different places have had varying levels of success in containing the virus and reducing its transmission,” notes Chemaly. “So, what’s most risky now is where you go and what you do while you’re there.”