Summer travel is booming, and while most pandemic-era restrictions in airports are gone, the coronavirus has more surprises in store.
BA.5, the latest subvariant of omicron, is spreading rapidly, becoming the dominant variant in the United States and creating a wave of COVID-19 cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting an average of more than 120,000 new cases a day in the United States, and that does not include the massive estimates of people who are not reporting results from home tests. Hospitalizations in the United States have increased 10% over the past week, according to tracking data from The Washington Post.
While people have been relying on their vaccinations and antibodies from previous infections, experts say those factors offer limited protection against the BA.5 variant. President Joe Biden’s administration is urging Americans to get boosted and take advantage of antiviral treatments.
Given the uncertainty of the moment, we consulted health experts for some advice on best practices and staying safe.
Where is BA.5 spreading?
Andy Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, expects the BA.5 variant to spread all over the world. “Anywhere it’s detected, it’s increasing at a faster rate than most other omicron variants that are around,” he said.
Jorge Moreno, an assistant professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, echoed this sentiment, adding that community spread is high. Moreno said data shows that a person can become sick with BA.5 even if they were recently infected with an omicron variant.
“We can assume that it is everywhere because of the high transmissibility,” said Lin Chen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. Even if it hasn’t been reported or confirmed yet, “it is likely present already,” Chen added.
Should I still fly right now?
Travelers should weigh their comfort with the risk of infection against the merits of a trip. The United States dropped its requirement for coronavirus testing to enter the country in June, but the CDC recommends getting a viral test as close to your departure time as possible. If you are feeling any COVID-19 symptoms, you should change or postpone your flight.
“We know with COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses that you’re probably infectious just before the time you start to show symptoms,” Pekosz said.
It’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid flying even if you come down with a runny nose or small cough. If you feel healthy, however, it’s important to wear a high-quality mask — like an N95 or KN95 — and practice social distancing when possible. Of course, on a crowded airplane, you can only do so much when it comes to distancing. But Pekosz suggests that when you’re at the airport, try to stay six feet away from other travelers until it is time to board the flight.
How safe is it to take a cruise?
If you’re considering traveling on a cruise, you should assess your risk and decide what you’re comfortable with. “COVID can more easily spread in close quarters onboard ships,” Moreno said.
While you do have the option to isolate in your room, many cruise activities are communal. Even though cruises have testing procedures in place for passengers and ship staff, the coronavirus has consistently found its way on board. As of Wednesday, 93 of the 94 ships reporting coronavirus data to the CDC were under observation because they met the threshold for investigation (cases in 0.3% of total crew and passengers).
“If you get into a situation where you’re on a boat and you have some outbreaks, it’s very likely that you’ll get exposed and get infected,” Pekosz said.
However, Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, said cruises “can be done relatively safely because there is ability to isolate in one’s room” and “take advantage of distance and ventilation by being outdoors.”
Where should I wear a mask while traveling?
Wearing a mask when you’re in crowded, indoor spaces while traveling is a key way to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. “That includes shuttle buses, going through security, in the terminal and while on the plane,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
While wearing a mask on an airplane is no longer required, many health experts advise that travelers still mask up when they’re flying.
“I would advise masking at the airport and any form of public transportation given the high community spread,” Moreno said.
How long should I wait to travel after getting infected?
There are two main factors to consider when it comes to traveling after getting infected: a lack of symptoms and a negative rapid coronavirus test. Benjamin suggests waiting to travel until 10 days after your symptoms started or 10 days after a positive test — using whichever one came first — as a benchmark so you don’t travel while you’re infectious.
He added that you should avoid traveling for at least five days if you come into close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Should I cancel my trip abroad?
According to global tracking data from The Post, as of Thursday global hot spots for reported cases per capita included popular travel destinations such as Italy, France, Greece, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. A map on the same page showed clusters of surges across Western Europe and Central America.
People who plan to travel abroad should follow the guidance of the countries where they plan to travel, Benjamin said. This includes any testing, vaccination or masking requirements that might be in place.
It is also important to make sure you are fully vaccinated and boosted before traveling. Unvaccinated people and people who have an increased risk for severe disease or hospitalization should reconsider plans to travel abroad, Chen said. She recommended that people buy travel insurance and travel medical insurance, in case an infection forces them to isolate on a trip or delay traveling.