Most epidemiologists and other health officials agree it is best not to travel right now. But for those planning to pack up and head out, there are some universal precautions to consider and advice about where to go.
A personal decision whether or not to travel is ultimately a matter of risk assessment. But the level of risk any one person is willing to take varies. That makes it hard for public officials to create rigid policies about exactly how to travel during a pandemic. Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said at a recent press conference that travelers must use common sense.
“If you are taking a car and you’re going into the woods and you’re by yourself for two weeks on a vacation or a week, that is very low risk travel. You’re not likely to bring back COVID-19. If you’ve traveled on multiple airplanes for long periods of time, you visited bars in some high risk states—that’s a very different exposure,” she said.
Dr. David Dausey, an epidemiologist and executive vice president and provost of Duquesne University, said the familiar COVID-19 precautionary measures are especially important when considering traveling:
- Cover your mouth and nose with a facemask;
- Wash your hands often;
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol;
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth;
- Avoid close contact with others by maintaining at least six feet of distance;
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces; and
- Be alert for symptoms of COVID-19.
The first risk to consider is the destination and accommodations. Dausey said a lake cabin has become a popular solution for families this summer, but even a beach trip can be a low risk option with the right precautions.
“There’s been a lot of press about beaches being bad locations. The reality is they’re outdoors and you know, there’s a lot of wind and high humidity and other things that are less than ideal for COVID-19,” he said. Dausey advised finding a spot away from others and leaving a beach if it becomes too crowded.
He suggests researching a region's COVID-19 case count while planning. If the destination is experiencing a high number of COVID-19 cases, consider postponing or heading somewhere else.
Another risk to consider is how to get there. “The safest way to actually travel right now is to get in a car and go somewhere,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why rental cars are sort of way up right now.”
If the trip requires a flight or train, select an off time, such as the last flight in the evening. Dausey said to research what flights are typically less packed and make a selection based on that information. A traveler should also consider an airline’s policies when determining the risk associated with flying. Both United and American Airlines returned to full capacity flights this summer.
Scott Burke, 47, lost his service industry job during the statewide shutdown and remains out of work. He decided he wanted to spend the extra time on his hands with his daughter in Florida. So he planned a trip in early August. He figured his best bet was to drive his own car from Pittsburgh to Florida.
“I brought snacks, a cooler with me, so I didn’t really have to stop. And I always have hand sanitizer in my car. So the biggest thing with me was being responsible about my trip,” he said. Burke also wore a facemask each time he stopped for gas.
Burke spent two weeks traveling. During that time he went to beaches, natural springs and Disney World. He noted Disney’s list of precautions and the small crowd sizes he experienced in the park. Despite Burke practicing social distancing and keeping his facemask on, he warns people that he was in a unique position to travel.
“I’d never want anybody to hear this and be like, ‘Well he did it, and he’s fine.’ I’m a single guy who lives in an apartment that’s not an apartment building. Like I can very easily not be around people,” he said. Burke noted he’s also able to avoid any elderly relatives.
Burke also was free of completing a workplace quarantine requirement upon his return. Though, he notes, he did quarantine for two weeks anyway just to be safe. He was also tested for the virus before he was able to see his primary care physician for an unrelated health matter. His results came back negative.
Most people considering a trip will need to consult with their employer about what kind of quarantine or other measures might be required before they come back to the office.
But what do public health officials say a traveler should do when they return home? There isn’t one, consistent message.
The state recommends a 14-day quarantine upon returning from a trip to a state with high case counts, like Florida. The University of Pittsburgh recommends its employees complete a 14-day quarantine regardless of where they travel.
UPMC, the state’s largest non-governmental employer, says its employees should monitor themselves but that they don’t need to quarantine unless they have symptoms of COVID-19.
Allegheny County has endorsed both the state’s and UPMC’s guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests simply monitoring for symptoms for two weeks after a trip and maintaining social distancing when out and about.
Despite the gray area between the guidance from different officials, Dausey said everyone should closely monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and, “If you feel unwell in any way, you should talk to your health care provider and not go to work.”
Dausey said he’s hopeful that a vaccine is on its way, but said unnecessary travel should still be avoided. “People have to use good judgement at this point,” he said.
“The question is: could this wait six months? If the answer is yes, then do it six months from now because we’re probably going to be in a different place with treatment and hopefully with a vaccine… so if you can wait: wait.”