This holiday season, many people will want to make up for lost time, traveling to be with their families or to a favorite destination they might not have been able to visit during the height of the pandemic.
Of course, COVID-19 is still with us, and still taking the lives of hundreds of Americans each day. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, has surged among children and created a shortage of beds at pediatric hospitals. And the old standby colds and flu are still circulating, too.
What’s a holiday traveler to do? We spoke with Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention, about how to protect yourself and your family while enjoying the season.
“We have so many infection prevention strategies available that we can use to make holiday traveling as safe as possible this year,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
These small steps can yield big payoffs when it comes to staying healthy and avoiding serious illness.
1. Get up to date on all your vaccinations.
By now we know that vaccination does not stop every COVID-19 or flu infection, but it does greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization or death. Everyone ages 6 months and up is eligible for both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine. Make sure you and your family have received both, including COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Individuals ages 5 and up can get the latest bivalent booster that is specifically tailored to the strains circulating this fall.
There is not yet an RSV vaccine, but getting the COVID-19 and flu shots can help reduce the impact of respiratory illness on your family.
Babies and adults 65 and older also benefit from the pneumonia vaccine.
Vaccines are good for individuals and communities, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
“Vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. And at a population level, vaccines also prevent viruses from continuing to circulate so widely,” she says. “The more they circulate, the more they adapt and create new variants that can continue to cause more illness.”
2. Use the infection prevention tools we’ve learned during the pandemic.
One silver lining of the past nearly three years is that we’ve learned a lot about simple measures that can keep respiratory illnesses from spreading: wearing a mask, keeping your distance from others, frequent hand-washing and testing.
Masks are no longer required on planes or in most other public spaces, but there’s no reason not to wear one to reduce your risk of catching COVID-19, a cold or the flu, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
“We know masking works. It not only protects you from catching COVID-19 and other viruses, it prevents you from spreading a virus to other people if you’re ill and don’t know it,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
Physical distancing is still effective and can be a good strategy if you have a trip or visit coming up and want to stay healthy. If you’re going to see a vulnerable person, such as an infant, an older adult or an immunocompromised person, testing for COVID-19 before seeing them is another helpful safeguard. If you test negative with an at-home test, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you take another test 24 to 48 hours later to verify the result.
And good old-fashioned hand-washing continues to work against many cold viruses, the flu and gastrointestinal viruses.
3. Cancel your plans if you feel sick and make a plan if you get sick while traveling.
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, the flu or another contagious illness, don’t expose others. It’s especially important to protect older adults, immunocompromised people and infants, but no one should be exposed to a virus if it can be prevented.
“Be very cognizant of your own health and how you’re feeling, and be willing to be flexible,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
If you’re traveling, think about how you would handle a COVID-19 diagnosis or another illness. It might help to talk to your doctor about how you can access treatment or antiviral medication on the road. Travel insurance or refundable tickets can help provide peace of mind.
Talk to your doctor about receiving a COVID-19 booster or your flu shot before holiday travel and gatherings. Need a doctor? Find one near you.