NEWS OPINION

Ask an Expert: What Should Families Consider Ahead of Holiday Travel?

mother wiping down headrest screen on airplane for daughter. both are wearing masks

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Robert L. Quigley, MD, DPhil, is the Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director, Corporate Health Solutions at International SOS MedAire. After 25 years working in surgery, critical care, and immunology, he's using his expertise to advise on crisis management, infectious disease, and health care. Here, he shares his thoughts on travel considerations for families with young children who may not yet be fully vaccinated.

With the holidays just around the corner, many families who are planning to travel remain anxious about the potential heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Some of the anxiety may be lifted with the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11. The hope is that vaccinating these 30 million youngsters will not only reduce their risk of COVID-19 infection, but also reduce the number of infections in both vaccinated and unvaccinated adults through transmission.

Still, there’s a few things to consider before taking a child on a trip.

Will Kids Be Fully Vaccinated Ahead of Travel?

It typically takes a minimum of two weeks following vaccination for immunity against COVID-19 to develop. Simply scheduling a vaccination appointment with the pediatrician provides no immunity. Full protection requires two doses spaced three weeks apart, plus two weeks elapsed from the second dose.

How Will You Get to Your Destination?

If you’re taking any form of public transportation, know that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) federal mask mandate for airline, bus, and train will extend until January 18, 2022. This serves as a built-in safeguard for unvaccinated children—as long as every passenger follows the rules.

When feasible, though, consider travel by car versus airline. The risk of COVID-19 transmission between family members is lower (although not zero) than that seen in public places with strangers where social distancing cannot easily be practiced (i.e., in the airport).

If your destination isn’t within driving distance, though, don’t panic. Contrary to popular belief, the risk of COVID-19 transmission on an airplane is much lower than originally thought because of the on-board HEPA filters, the recirculation of cabin air every three to four minutes, and the direction of airflow (downward and towards the back).

What's the Status of Your Destination?

In order to ensure you’re comfortable traveling during the pandemic, be sure to stay in-the-know on up to date travel recommendations and guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This will help you evaluate your family’s level of risk, and whether or not it's the right time to take a trip right now. Worthwhile metrics for this safety assessment include, but are not limited to:

  • Case numbers: Are they rising or falling?
  • COVID-19 hospitalizations: Are the rising of falling?
  • If traveling internationally: What is the prevailing variant and how transmissible is it?

This information is readily available from the travel sections on the CDC website and/or the U.S. Embassy at your destination.

Know Before You Go

Regardless of vaccination status, parents should follow the below safety mitigation measures to lessen the risk of contracting COVID-19 while traveling, and to prevent their children from contracting the virus as well:

  1. All members of the travel party should carry a copy of their vaccination card on their person or digital device.
  2. Do not travel if anyone in party is sick.
  3. Travel with hand sanitizer (TSA allows one liquid hand sanitizer up to 12 oz./passenger) and disinfecting wipes.
  4. Avoid poorly-ventilated dense environments as much as possible.
  5. Avoid touching common surfaces and putting hands in your mouth.
  6. Wear a mask for all public transportation, and carry one in the event a retail store requires one for admission.
  7. If traveling out of country, learn the entry requirement (testing) of the destination country as well as quarantine and contact tracing rules/regulations.
  8. Determine whether the COVID-19 case rate is increasing or decreasing at your destination. If you're on the fence about cancelling your trip, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider for advice.

It is apparent that even fully vaccinated individuals can get infected with COVID-19, and in turn, transmit it. At the same time, there remains a significant population of adults who will refuse to be vaccinated and refuse to have their children vaccinated. So COVID-19 risk remains this holiday season. But travel can and will still happen. Therefore, it's important for everyone to take the above steps to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Pombal R, Hosegood I, Powell D. Risk of COVID-19 during air travelJAMA. 2020;324(17):1798. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.19108