This story was updated on Dec. 17.
Dec. 16, 2020 -- With U.S. regulators on the cusp of approving a second coronavirus vaccine, there is new hope that COVID-19 will eventually be eradicated. But medical experts warn that optimism could lead to careless behavior in the coming weeks and are advising people to approach holiday travel with the utmost caution.
Doctors recommend having virtual gatherings in lieu of intimate get-togethers, and traveling only if there is an urgent need. If travel is absolutely necessary, it is important to have wipes, hand sanitizer, masks -- and to keep your guard up.
“Unfortunately, the vaccines will not remove the need to take precautions during the holidays,” says Henry Wu, MD, director of the Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “This includes masking, distancing, and hand hygiene.”
He adds: “The vaccines are extremely promising and could be a game-changer. But we're talking about several months before we see a rollout.”
Wu hosted a virtual briefing Wednesday to provide safety tips when traveling by air or car during the holidays. He noted the skyrocketing COVID-19 cases that resulted from Thanksgiving and warned the same thing could happen after Christmas.
Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, MD, has said he has the same concerns about Christmas as he did about Thanksgiving -- except Christmas may prove to be more harmful because it is a longer holiday.
“I’m going to be with my wife — period,” Fauci told The Washington Post. “The Christmas holiday is a special holiday for us because Christmas Eve is my birthday. And Christmas Day is Christmas Day. And they are not going to come home. That’s painful. We don’t like that. But that’s just one of the things you’re going to have to accept as we go through this unprecedented challenging time.”
“This cannot be business as usual this Christmas because we’re already in a very difficult situation, and we’re going to make it worse, if we don’t do something about it,” he said.
Because the vaccines likely won’t be given to the general public until spring or later, they will not ease any restrictions this holiday, Wu says.
Among Wu’s safety recommendations for holiday travel are:
- Avoid travel if it isn’t urgent.
- If you will be traveling, keep gatherings small.
- Always wear a mask.
- Carry hand sanitizer.
- Keep your distance from other travelers.
If the precautions “are a headache and if they take away the spirit of the holidays, consider postponing,” Wu says.
He adds that traveling by car might be safest, because you can control your environment. While the ventilation in aircraft make them some of the safest environments in terms of COVID-19 risk, there are other issues to worry about, like crowds and surfaces.
The good news, he says, is hotels and Airbnbs have been taking several sanitizing precautions, though he recommends wiping down surfaces in the room just in case. But, he says, the dangers of hotels do not lie in individual rooms -- they are at the front desk, in the lobby, and in elevators.
“The more you can avoid those spaces, the better,” he says.
Wu referenced a massive coronavirus outbreak at an Austrian ski resort, which infected thousands of people and worsened the COVID-19 spread across Europe.
Once the COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed, Wu says, there may be vaccine mandates created by airlines. But until then, he recommends avoiding all travel -- and if you must, he says, get tested before going anywhere, and self-isolate after your trip to avoid spreading the virus.
He also suggests following the CDC guidelines for holiday travel, which include:
- Check travel restrictions before you go.
- Check the CDC’s domestic travel guidance and consider testing before and after you travel.
- Get your flu shot before you travel.
- Always wear a mask in public settings, when using public transportation, and when around people who you don’t live with.
- Wear your mask correctly over your nose and mouth.
- Stay at least 6 feet from anyone who does not live with you.
- Wash your hands often, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- If driving, pack your food and limit stops.
Excessive holiday travel could lead to an even more overwhelmed health care system, Wu says.
“There will be a point when our hospitals, our ICUs, and clinics will be overwhelmed and just have to turn away folks,” he says. “This is why everyone should do their part to take their precautions.”