Q: I want to take a family trip this summer. Is it safe to do so?
A: After more than a year of pandemic life, we are eager to return to some sense of normalcy. For many families, this includes traveling. But for families with young children who aren’t able to get COVID-19 vaccines yet, it’s still complicated.
Federal experts who warned about the dangers of travel earlier in the pandemic now say fully vaccinated people can safely travel, with some common-sense precautions.
However, they still advise against any nonessential travel for unvaccinated individuals. And the problem is, vaccines aren’t yet available for children under age 12. Although parents and older children who are vaccinated are protected, traveling now may still put younger children at risk.
While most cases of COVID-19 infections in children are mild, some do become severely ill. Thousands of children have been hospitalized for COVID-19, and hundreds have died. In addition, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is a condition that has been unique to children during the pandemic and can be quite serious.
Not all vacations or trips carry the same risk. For example, traveling by car to a vacation rental home is much safer than flying to a busy hotel and spending the week at a crowded beach and an amusement park. The key is to think about number of close contacts you’ll likely have during the course of your travel plans. The more contacts, the higher the risk.
There are steps you can take to lower travel risks:
n Have everyone in your family who is eligible (12 years and older) and those whom you plan on visiting, get their COVID-19 vaccine. Many COVID-19 infections come from household contacts. By ensuring everyone is vaccinated, you’ll limit the number of suspectable contacts.
n Check the COVID-19 spread rates where you plan to visit. Locations with high rates of community spread means higher risk of someone in your family being exposed to COVID-19. 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.
n On a plane, bus, train or other form of public transportation, make sure everyone in the family wears a mask, even those who are fully vaccinated. Keep them on at the airport or train or bus station, too. The masks should cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly with no gaps at the sides.
n Try to travel by car if possible. While the airline industry has taken amazing steps in helping to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission (HEPA air filters, air exchange, electrostatic spraying), traveling by car will limit your contact with the public. In addition, the road trip experience can be a great way for older children to see new places. During any rest stops, remember to wear masks and wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Also, consider packing your own food and snacks.
n If you must fly: Book direct flights when possible. That will limit the need to change planes and walk through busy airports. Keep your masks on for the entire flight and consider opting out of meals so you don’t have to remove them. Don’t forget to bring disinfectant wipes to sanitize all the high-touch areas.
n Pack extra masks and hand sanitizers. Along with toothbrushes, diapers and the portable crib, be sure to tote along those important pandemic essentials. Pack at least two masks per child in case one is lost or drying after being washed. When packing hand sanitizer, include a travel-size dispenser that can be stored in a purse or backpack as well as a larger container for refills. Ensure that the hand sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol.
COVID-19 has affected everyone, and the past year has been stressful for families. The urge to travel might be tempting, but the pandemic is not over yet and it’s important to consider the risks. As the vaccine rollout proceeds and more people are vaccinated, your family will be able to enjoy a relaxing trip soon.
Dr. Gary Kirkilas is a general pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital who operates a mobile medical unit that travels to homeless shelters and provides free medical care to families. He also is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. For more information, go to HealthyChildren.org, the website for parents from the AAP.