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Is it Safe to Travel to Visit Family Over the Holidays?

SmarterTravel

The pull to travel to visit family for the holidays this year is stronger than ever, especially if you haven’t been able to see your loved ones all year. However, the fear over potentially getting your family members sick (especially if they’re older or in another high-risk category) is real. We asked the experts to get some facts around visiting family this year to help you make your decision. 

Dr. Sarah Raskin, an assistant professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, advises: “It can be overwhelming to think in such stark terms as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe.’ Rather, I recommend focusing on risk minimization—for yourself, for your loved ones, and especially for your loved ones whose existing health concerns put them at increased risk for serious consequences from COVID-19—as you consider whether to travel and, if so, how.”

This is a decision that you and your family will have to make together. Before you make any plans, have an honest conversation with your family and set some ground rules around what a visit will look like. Some people may want to eat inside restaurants, while others might only be okay sitting outside in someone’s backyard, and it’s best to find that out before plans are made. Discuss whether people want to wear masks, visit outside or indoors, and who will be part of the visit to make sure that everyone is on the same page and avoid fights when you arrive.

Risk during the pandemic exists on a spectrum, and you have to decide what you’re comfortable with. At the lowest end of the spectrum is staying at home and doing a virtual visit. The highest risk level would be flying to visit family and staying inside their house. In the middle, there are compromises like driving to do a masked visit outside or having everyone get tested before a short visit indoors.

How to Minimize The Risks

According to Dr. Raskin, the top five things you can do to minimize the risk while visiting family over the holidays are: 

  1. Be consistent about mask-wearing and hand-washing
  2. Avoid other travelers
  3. Get tested
  4. Quarantine
  5. Be flexible (be prepared to change or cancel your plans if new guidance is announced or if someone in your family begins experiencing symptoms).

Take whatever steps you can during the visit to reduce risk. If the weather allows, hold Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner outside and set place settings six feet apart. Prepare individual plates rather than serving food buffet style or having shared plates (like a cheese board). Open windows/doors inside to increase ventilation. 

Quarantine

If possible, everyone involved in the visit should quarantine for two weeks ahead of time to further reduce the risk. When you return home from the holidays, you should also quarantine for two more weeks or be tested in case you picked up the virus while you were away. Check your state’s travel advisories, as many states are mandating quarantine or testing following travel to certain states.

Testing

Both you and your family should get tested before the visit. The timing and type of test are important. Dr. Raskin advises, “COVID has an incubation period of 2-14 days. Therefore, a person may first test positive as soon as 2 days after infection or as long as 14 days after the infection. Most commonly a person infected with COVID tests positive around day 4 or 5 of being infected.” 

Currently, the most reliable test available is the PCR test, but this test takes longer to get results. Although faster for results, the rapid test is less reliable. It’s important to note that both the PCR and the rapid test can produce false-negative results, especially if the sample is not obtained properly. According to Harvard Medical School, the false-negative rate for a PCR test is between 2 percent and 37 percent. For a rapid test, the false-negative rate can be as high as 50 percent. 

Flying vs. Driving

Driving is generally the safer option as you have more control over your exposure. “While airlines, bus lines, and Amtrak are taking significant precautions to minimize the risk of COVID transmission, it’s still preferable to limit your exposure to other travelers, who may not be as diligent about mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, and testing-before-traveling as you are. Think about it this way: Every traveler you come in contact with, you are exposed to every one of their contacts’ risk exposures. Given the volume of people visiting loved ones during the holidays, the travel industries’ precautions will be working on overdrive and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple of cluster outbreaks slip through,” says Dr. Raskin.

However, driving isn’t risk-free. Dr. Kunjana Mavunda, KIDZ Medical Services, warns: “If the trip is long, and an overnight stay at a hotel is required—that increases the exposure. And, if there is only one driver for the long trip, that can be risky due to fatigue. Long trips will require stops along the way. Bathrooms, gas stations, and restaurants are places where exposure occurs.” 

If you do choose to fly, follow these tips to make the flight a safer one.

Ultimately, the safest choice is to stay home and stay socially-distanced this holiday season. However, the choice is up to you and your family. If you do decide to travel and get together, do everything you can to minimize risk so that you can have many more family holidays together in the future.

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