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Coronavirus FAQ: What's The Advice About Traveling In The Delta Variant Era?

Passengers queue up at Greece's Thessaloniki Makedonia Airport on Sept. 2. Recommendations about physical distancing prove hard to follow at airports — and in the jetway leading to the plane.
Passengers queue up at Greece's Thessaloniki Makedonia Airport on Sept. 2. Recommendations about physical distancing prove hard to follow at airports — and in the jetway leading to the plane.

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

I waited until I was vaccinated and the CDC had OK'd non-essential travel to plan a trip — but that was before the delta era. Now I have a flight scheduled in September, and cases are skyrocketing. What are the rules for flying this fall? Should I cancel?!

That depends.

The decision to travel rests on both your personal risk tolerance and on public health considerations, say medical and travel experts. If you have a flight booked for the next few weeks, now is the time to reevaluate. Ask yourself these questions, suggests Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of adult and pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine:

  • Do you have underlying health concerns? Does anyone you live with or see often have underlying health concerns? "Even if you don't get sick [with symptoms] but are infected, you could infect someone else," she says.
  • What is the transmission rate and hospital capacity of the place you're flying to? You don't want to travel into an uncontrolled situation, she points out, where you may not be able to get care for any ailment, COVID or otherwise, or an injury. "If it looks like things are moving toward uncontrolled community transmission, then it's advisable not to travel to that area," she says. (If the local health department's COVID tracker is pointing to the worst threat level, that likely indicates uncontrolled spread. Houston's Harris County, for example, is currently red for "severe," and advises people who are not fully vaccinated to stay home.) Especially if you're travelling internationally, you could find yourself at risk of substandard care if you should need medical attention in an overburdened country with fewer resources than the U.S., says Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. And at the moment, patients are facing exceptionally long waits to be seen by a health worker in an emergency room in some parts of the U.S.
  • Do you live in an area that's surging? If so, you risk infecting others at your destination.
  • So when should you cancel a trip?

    This is a particularly challenging moment of the pandemic to make decisions, our experts acknowledge, because there's just a lot we don't know about the coming months.

    "We don't know what direction things will go; it's hard to predict right now," Weatherhead says. "Delta is a new variable, and some areas are not using the same mitigation strategies they used last year."

    The governor of Hawaii has even asked all tourists to stay away until at least the end of October, while hospitals are at capacity.

    "Given all that, my best advice is that everyone's travel threshold should be a bit higher right now," Wu says. "With this wave being so serious it is wise to scale back on activity that increases exposure risk."

    Instead of canceling, however, consider postponing.

    "It makes sense to wait if travel can be delayed," Wu says. "I would say delay until there's more certainty or maybe change it to a road trip" to a safer destination.

    The good news is that most major airlines are still waiving change fees. One thing that hasn't changed, however? The telephone hold time. You could be waiting around 2 hours to talk to a human.

    If you go:

    If you do fly, the rules haven't changed for domestic flights: You're still required to mask up in airports, and you'll still reduce your risk by keeping a physical distance from others as much as possible and removing your mask as infrequently as possible. Although many people dropped some of the layering strategies after they got vaccinated, they still work and are particularly essential when you're in riskier-than-usual situations, Wu says — such as the jet bridge between the airport and the airplane.

    "I traveled this summer and I think the most dangerous part was the jet bridges, which still get backed up and crowded," he says. "There's not a lot you can do, but keep your mask on. The more you can avoid that crowd the better."

    The snack cart presents another potentially risky situation, so take your snack to go (save it for your destination) or eat it quickly when others have their masks on, Wu and Weatherhead suggest.

    Logistically, travelling domestically remains fairly straightforward: There are no temperature checks or verification systems to check your vaccination or COVID-19 testing records. (Once you get to your destination, however, your vaccination card may be required to eat at restaurants or go to concerts.)

    If you're travelling overseas, things are now a little more complex: The European Union took the U.S. off its "safe list" this week, meaning individual countries may impose quarantine and testing restrictions in order to visit. Be sure to check the requirements of the country you're travelling to as well as the CDC's list of countries not to travel to.

    While the CDC doesn't officially recommend testing after you're back home] if you're vaccinated, "if you have risk factors or around folks who may be frail or unvaccinated, I don't think it's a bad thing to be extra careful and get tested," Wu says.

    What if you're not vaccinated?

    Like most activities involving other people, travelling while unvaccinated is a lot riskier. In fact, this week the CDC asked all unvaccinated people to avoid travel over the Labor Day holiday.

    "If you're going to travel anyway and not be vaccinated, then really do your best and follow protocols [masking and physical distancing] for your own safety and those around you," Wu says. And, he says, quarantine or get tested after your trip!

    A simpler solution? Weatherhead and Wu say if you're eligible, get vaccinated.

    Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. She's written about COVID-19 for many publications, including Medscape, Kaiser Health News, Science News for Students and The Washington Post. More at sheilaeldred.pressfolios.com. On Twitter: @milepostmedia.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.