Q: I want to take a family trip this summer. Is it safe to do this?
A: After more than a year of pandemic, we would like to return to a sense of normalcy. For many families, this also applies to travel. But for families with young children who can’t yet get COVID-19 vaccines, it’s still complicated.
Federal experts who warned about the dangers of travel earlier in the pandemic now say fully vaccinated people can travel safely, with some common-sense precautions.
However, they still advise against non-essential travel for unvaccinated individuals. And the problem is that vaccines are not yet available for children under 12. While parents and older children who have been vaccinated are protected, travel can still pose a risk to younger children.
While most cases of COVID-19 infections in children are mild, some become seriously ill. Thousands of children have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and hundreds have died. In addition, childhood multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) is a condition that was unique to children during the pandemic and can be quite serious.
Not all vacations or travel involve the same risk. For example, traveling by car to a vacation rental is much safer than flying to a busy hotel and spending the week on a busy beach and amusement park. The key is to think about how many close contacts you are likely to have during your travel plans. The more contacts, the greater the risk.
There are steps you can take to reduce travel risks:
— Have everyone in your eligible family (12 years and older) and those you plan to visit get their COVID-19 vaccine. Many infections with COVID-19 arise from domestic contacts. By making sure everyone is vaccinated, you limit the number of suspicious contacts.
— Check the spread rates of COVID-19 where you plan to visit. Locations with a high rate of spread in the community mean a greater risk of someone in your family being exposed to COVID-19. If the intended destination has a high diffusion rate, use extra caution in public. Keep in mind that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities.
— On a plane, bus, train or other form of public transport, make sure that everyone in the family wears a mask, even those who have been fully vaccinated. Also keep them on at the airport, train or bus station. The masks should cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly with no gaps on the sides.
— If possible, try to travel by car. While the aviation industry has taken amazing steps to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 (HEPA air filters, air exchange, electrostatic spraying), traveling by car will limit your contact with the public. Plus, the road trip experience can be a great way for older kids to see new places. During rest breaks, remember to wear masks and wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Also consider packing your own food and snacks.
— If you need to fly: book direct flights if possible. That reduces the need to change planes and walk through busy airports. Keep your masks on throughout the flight and consider forgoing meals so you don’t have to take them off. Don’t forget to bring disinfectant wipes to sanitize all high-touch areas.
– Pack extra masks and hand sanitizers. In addition to toothbrushes, diapers and the portable crib, make sure you have those important pandemic essentials with you. Pack at least two masks per child in case one gets lost or dries up after washing. When packing hand sanitizer, use a travel-sized dispenser that can be stored in a purse or backpack, as well as a larger container for refills. Make sure that the hand gel contains at least 60% alcohol.
COVID-19 has affected everyone and the past year has been stressful for families. The urge to travel may be tempting, but the pandemic is not over and it’s important to consider the risks. As the vaccine rollout progresses and more people are vaccinated, your family will soon be able to enjoy a relaxing trip.
ABOUT THE WRITER
dr. Gary Kirkilas is a general pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. He operates a mobile medical unit that travels to homeless shelters and provides free medical care to families. He is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parent website.