How to not get COVID travelling in summer 2022

After two and a half years of hunkering down, many Canadians are finally ready to make that long-awaited cross-country visit to family, go on that postponed European tour, or just take the beach vacation they’ve been dreaming of since 2020.

Many travel restrictions have been dropped, clearing the way for international destinations (although navigating airports and delayed flights is another story).

But, with a new wave driven by the ultra-contagious BA.5 variant in Ontario and cases surging in several countries, it’s clear the pandemic is not over.

No one wants to get sick (and potentially have to delay, cancel or extend your trip out of pocket) while travelling.

While travel is never risk-free, there are some practical ways to have a safer holiday this summer:

Before you go

Samantha Yammine, a science communicator with a PhD in cell and molecular biology and neuroscience, who’s planning an international honeymoon, plans to create a buffer leading up to her trip.

“You don’t want to possibly jeopardize your vacation by getting sick before you go, so absolutely do try to avoid anything that’s higher-risk before you leave,” said Yammine, who goes by “Science Sam” on social media.

She’ll also pack some rapid tests so that she and her partner have them on hand just in case they develop symptoms.

She plans to set them up for success, by doing things like booking hotels with patios for outside dining, and renting a car rather than taking public transit between spots. When picking destinations, she also looked for countries with higher vaccination rates.

“Nobody wants to forget about COVID, especially on vacation, more than me,” she said. “I need that, so that’s also why we’re pre-planning as much as we can.”

Yammine also recommends making sure you are up to date with as many doses of vaccine as you are eligible for, and adjusting plans as necessary to maybe take fewer risks, if it’s been more than six months since your last shot.

“I would encourage people if they’re eligible for their booster, to get it before their vacation, so they can be at that peak immunity,” she said.

Eric Kennedy, an assistant professor of emergency management at York who has also done work on COVID risk — and managed to avoid the disease while travelling to California and Australia recently for conferences — acknowledges fatigue and complacency are common while travelling. But he recommends practising good habits before you go, like donning a mask at the grocery store.

“So that when you do get tired, in your travels, it’s easier to stick with those habits,” he said.

En route

Even though some airports and airlines don’t have mask mandates anymore, Yammine is planning on bringing well-fitted N95 or KF94 masks and wearing them throughout the flight and at the airport.

“Because that’s where I see some of the highest risk, in those long lines, where people are close together,” she said. In case she needs a break, she’s also packing some surgical masks.

For Kennedy, a well-fitting N95 mask is a “backbone” of his defence.

He compares COVID virus particles to cigarette smoke, which can travel and linger in the air, particularly in small, crowded spaces with poor ventilation.

He personally likes an N95 mask from Costco but said there are many affordable, comfortable models out there.

“If I’m going to catch COVID I want it to be doing something that really matters, and it is really worth it to me. There are ways we can stamp out the risk or at least really reduce it, by wearing well-fitting N95.”

On arrival

The other aspect of Kennedy’s clean-air strategy is to avoid taking off the mask as much as possible — for example, keeping it on during a post-conference coffee session with colleagues.

“You’re never going to have zero risk, but where are the easy wins,” he said. “Giving up terrible conference centre coffee is just not that big a loss.”

This can be extra-tough when no one else is wearing a mask, so he seeks out allies, friends and coworkers who are on the same page so they can, for example, all go together to find a patio or bring food outside.

Yammine and her partner will discuss their “risk budget” beforehand and figure what’s worth splurging on — maybe a nice dinner inside — and what’s not.

“It’s a matter of reducing risk,” said Marianne Levitsky, an adjunct lecturer at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “And generally all of the things we’ve been doing up until now will help reduce risk, whether you’re travelling or just staying in the same place and want to do something other than stay in your own home.

“Just think about the choices you’re making. If you’ve already booked your travel, you may have fewer choices, but if you haven’t yet, really do think about where you’re going, can you arrange to stay in places that are not crowded with a lot of people, can you be outdoors as much as possible?”

In general, because COVID spreads through the air, outside is safer than inside, and crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation are the riskiest.

Beaches, outdoor zoos and parks are all lower-risk (depending on how many people are there as the risk rises in crowded spots). For that reason you might want to skip that packed outdoor music festival, or try to seek out patios that are less busy.

Nightclubs, and concerts in small venues are examples of higher-risk activities. A near-empty museum (good luck finding that during peak travel season) with high ceilings would be less risky than a busy indoor restaurant.

Kennedy also thinks about the air around him when he needs to take the mask off inside, like to sleep at night.

When he arrives at a hotel room he leaves it to air out for a couple hours by opening the windows. He also looks for hotels with individualized heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and or HEPA filters on site.

After

Upon returning to Canada, Yammine also plans another buffer period, of limiting contacts, to cut down on the chance that she will infect them, as well as rapid testing. She also acknowledges that as a fully vaccinated and boosted young person with no risk factors, she’s privileged to be able to consider pandemic travel at all.

For Kennedy it’s also important to reflect on situations, after the fact, that may have been a little more risky than he would have liked, and what he could have done differently.

“I think a lot of people are feeling pressured into living with the virus, and, if I can encourage us to do just a little learning along the way, if we take that part of the expression seriously we can do the things we want to, with a relative degree of safety,” he said.

“I want to offer hope that you can do the things you care about and take some common-sense precautions along the way.”

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