When can I travel safely? Experts weigh in on when it will be safe to travel

When Can I Travel
Posted at 3:00 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 15:00:01-05

CHICAGO — For many Americans, being couped up for a year is making everyone stir crazy. It’s natural to want to get on a plane to escape and some are doing that. But public health experts say it’s still risky.

At the beginning of the outbreak, air travel nearly came to a standstill. But major holidays like Thanksgiving and even spring break saw spikes in travel and increased coronavirus spread.

“I absolutely think that travel is safer now than it was before if you're vaccinated,” said Dr. Emily Landon, chief epidemiologist and executive medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Travel is definitely safer for you, but it may not be safer for those around you.”

But with millions already fully vaccinated and positivity rates generally on the decline, some may be planning a much-needed getaway.

“Air travel, car travel, whatever, whenever you are outside of your normal routines outside of the usual ways that you protect yourself from getting sick, there's risk,” said Dr. Benjamin Singer, an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine

But people are traveling. According to TSA, it screened nearly 1.3 million people at airports on Sunday. In the last week, about 7 million people have flown.

“If you've been vaccinated and now you feel like, ‘I've been vaccinated I want to go travel.' First of all, I completely agree with you. I feel the same way. But it's still not really appropriate to do that unless it's essential travel,” said Dr. Landon.

While the CDC has provided guidance for essential travel, it still warns that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time.”

Still, if you do travel infectious disease experts advise taking specific precautions.

“I still recommend that anybody who's traveling on an airplane needs to wear a very well-fitting mask and eye protection, including one of those face shields that goes over your mask,” said Dr. Landon. “Even some sort of like safety glasses or even regular glasses can help protect you.”

There is an anticipation of a major increase in domestic travel this summer as vaccine distribution expands and restrictions are eased. But it could be years before we see travel return to pre-pandemic numbers.

“It's hard to know,” said Dr. Singer. “If we continue our current rate of vaccination, we could ostensibly reach those levels later in the year.”

But for travelers who are hoping for the coronavirus risk to hit zero before they board, he says it’ll be a long wait.

“While all of these strategies, vaccinations, all the other public health measures are designed to bring the risk down as low as possible, it's not going to be zero," Dr. Singer said.