The minute the CDC announced that vaccinated people could go without a mask indoors, many parents must have thought the same as I did: Welp, there go all our summer travel plans. The world seems so much safer for the inoculated, and so much more questionable for our children 11 and under — what with any unvaccinated adult able to declare themselves otherwise and roam mask-free.
So, can we travel with our kids this summer? Many of you reading this have already answered “yes.” According to the Transportation Security Administration, 7.1 million people were screened at U.S. airports from Thursday through Monday of Memorial Day Weekend. We bet that’s not just adults on “vaxications” (sorry, a press release gave me that term and I promise never to use it again). And if you have managed to travel with the whole fam in recent weeks, chances are high that you did so without incident and are very happy about it.
Traveling is good for kids, after all. They need the stress relief (especially this year) just like the rest of us. They benefit from seeing new things, hearing different accents, connecting (in person!) with family members.
And yet, we have spent so many months worrying. Even as most kids infected with COVID sail through just fine, we have read the horror stories too. We know about MIS-C. We know about new variants. How do we know our kids won’t fall into that rare risk category?
Well, we don’t know. But we can take calculated risks. Doctors and infectious disease experts are not recommending our children spend another summer in isolation at home. And when SheKnows spoke to Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former CDC Chief Medical Officer, he reminded us that in many ways, traveling in 2021 is no different from all the other calculated risks we take with our kids — only this one can actually be fun.
“I would guess you had a car when you took your son home from the hospital, in an infant seat,” Amler says. “If you just bundled him up in your arms and walked back home, he would not be at risk of being in a car crash. But you figure the distance and the fact that you carry this bundle across many streets, that’s a risk. You do a calculus every single time.”
Here are some calculations and basic precautionary steps you can take before traveling with your children this summer.
Get Vaccinated Yourself
The vaccines are too new to know just how much they block transmission of COVID-19, but the signs are good so far. Though there is still a risk of contracting the virus if you’re vaccinated, the numbers are very low.
“A 95 percent effective vaccine is still going to leave 5 percent vulnerable; you just don’t know which 5 percent,” Amler explains (using the rate reported on the Pfizer vaccine in clinical trials). “So after being fully vaccinated, if you get a solid exposure to somebody who’s got the virus, you still have maybe a 5 percent chance of catching the virus.”
And if you’re in that 5 percent, and meet someone else in that 5 percent, or an unvaccinated person, there is a chance of passing the virus on to each other.
“When people were not vaccinated, it was basically 100 percent were at risk of passing the virus on if they caught it. So we’ve gone from a 100 percent risk, to a 5 percent risk, and for most families, that’s good enough,” Amler says.
The good news is that more and more people are getting vaccinated, so the rates of infection overall are going down. That, in turn is making the world safer for the unvaccinated — including our kids.
If you are planning to meet up with others on your trip who are unvaccinated, it may be a good idea to get all unvaccinated members of your party tested for COVID before seeing each other. This is, again, not 100 percent foolproof, but one more safety measure you can take.
Maintain the Old Rules — Social Distancing & Masks
Before there was a vaccine, Amler says we were all reliant on “basic 19th-century technology” to stay safe from the virus, which is to say: avoiding exposure to the virus. And we’re still reliant on those methods for our unvaccinated kids. That’s going to mean maintaining distance from others, being outside instead of inside whenever possible, and wearing masks.
With many states eliminating capacity restrictions and mask mandates, it is often going to be on you to do your own risk assessment for your family. Just because an amusement park or a banquet venue is allowing hundreds of people to gather maskless and close together doesn’t mean it’s wise, obviously. Maybe that’s going to mean you decline an invitation to a cousin’s wedding and instead plan a trip to the beach.
As for those masks — remember when double masking was all the rage? Don’t do that with your kids just so they’ll be safer on your trip, Amler warns. “My concern is the second barrier really increases the drag on airflow,” he says. “I’m concerned that some kids are not going to say ‘Mommy, Daddy, I’m uncomfortable,’ or ‘I can’t breathe.’ You know, they’ll just feel like they have to do this and they won’t tell you if they’re getting into trouble.”
Get There by Plane or by Car?
By this point you realize that no expert is going to give us a concrete answer, right? That’s because there are risks and benefits to both forms of travel.
There have been no known COVID super-spreader events from an airplane, and experts are largely satisfied with the rate of air exchange in an airplane, especially if all passengers are wearing masks. That said, airlines are packing in those passengers again, so the risk isn’t zero.
“I would consider a very crowded air terminal or a very crowded gate area or even a crowded air cabin when people deplane and they tend to bunch up very closely waiting to get off the plane — those are the biggest areas where transmission can occur,” Amler tells us.
If you can choose off-peak times and days to travel, you may have an easier time of avoiding those airport crowds (along with any of the anti-maskers lurking in their midst).
That would point to cars being slightly safer. Except not always.
“When you travel by car, you have fewer people to come in contact with, but there will be less opportunity for exposure when you travel by plane,” Amler says. “There’s also driver fatigue. If it’s a long distance, you might be talking about an overnight stay and the need to stop for food and restrooms and gas.”
If you’re traveling by car, make sure you stay in uncrowded hotels, eat outside or in the car, and make your rest stops short and sweet. At the same time, don’t try so hard to avoid stops that the driver’s attention is impaired.
Check the COVID ‘Weather’
Though you can’t control whether it rains or shines on your vacation, you can take the climate of a region into account when making your plans. The same goes for pandemic travel. Ahead of your trip, you can get a sense of the number of COVID cases and vaccination rates in the area.
“Locations with high rates of community spread means higher risk of someone in your family being exposed to COVID-19,” Dr. Gary Kirkilas wrote on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org. “If the intended destination has a high rate of spread, be extra cautious when in public. Keep in mind that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones.”
For this reason, you should read the fine print on cancellation policies. More travel vendors are offering to let you cancel with little or no penalty — which has two benefits for you: 1) you can cancel if COVID rates suddenly surge in your destination, and 2) you’ll know that if someone else was exposed to the virus, they hopefully will cancel their trip instead of showing up because they won’t get a refund.
You can also comparison shop for your airline, activities, and accommodations based on a companies’ stated COVID protocols. If a company has taken the time to outline the measures they’re taking to reduce crowds, require masks, and sanitize their space, that is a good sign they’re taking the pandemic seriously.
“You can you can make your own decision about whether you want to go to a place that’s being a little tighter or a little looser,” Amler says.
Yeah, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when making your 2021 travel plans, but at least it’s a whole lot easier than last year. And, as Amler says, vaccination rates can only go up from here.
“I advise my friends and family and colleagues not to beat themselves up over this thing, but try to be reasonable and practical and wise,” Amler says. “Take all the reasonable precautions and try to do it in a way that gives you personal confidence that you’ve done the right things. And then hope for the best.”
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