toy plan next to a passport plane ticket and mask

Is it safe to fly this holiday season during the pandemic?

Traveling increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. You may want to think twice before making those holiday travel plans this year as the number of positive cases nationwide is rising.

Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When deciding whether to travel, you should consider your underlying health conditions and those of others who will be part of your visit.

If you must travel, however, the CDC recommends doing your homework to understand the level of positive COVID-19 cases in the area you plan to visit.

The CDC and public health agencies recommend that as part of your risk assessment, check the COVID-19 positivity rate for your final destination using any one of the available travel tracking maps.

Traveling by air

mother and a son wearing masks with a suitcase at a busy airportIf you travel by air, there’s more to consider than just being on an airplane.

You’ll be spending time in security lines in airport terminals and possibly on airport shuttles, which can bring you in close contact with other people, frequently touched surfaces and public restrooms.

Physical distancing is difficult on crowded flights, so you may find yourself sitting near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for several hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus.

The airplane ride

If you must fly this holiday season, being on the actual airplane may be the least risky part of your trip.

A recent Department of Defense (DOD) study undertaken to assess the risks of transporting troops on commercial airlines, indicates that airplanes are well-ventilated spaces.

“The air that comes in, enters and exits at the ceiling and enters and exits at the floor. So if you’re a passenger and you’re doing normal breathing, the air currents carry it down and all the air is sent through a HEPA filter,” said Jolene Bowen, an infection prevention analyst for OSF HealthCare

Jolene said the highly efficient filters can eliminate 99% of virus particles. She also said high frequency air circulation systems help dilute tracer particles on large Boeing planes like the ones used for the DOD study.

“There are about 20 to 30 air changes per hour — kind of similar to in a hospital or an operating room where you have 12 to 15 air changes per hour. That’s why it feels almost breezy sometimes or it feels chilly because of the air current,” Jolene said. “That provides a lot more safety than other forms of transportation.”

Precautions to take

young man on plane applies hand sanitizer During your trip, the CDC recommends taking the following precautions to protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered when in public settings, including on public transportation and in airports and other transportation hubs.
  • Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about two arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

While you’re on the plane

It’s important to avoid moving through the aircraft during the flight, Jolene said.

Also, pay attention to what your seatmate is doing. While most airlines have suspended in-flight meals and drink service, that won’t stop some passengers from eating what they carry on.

“So in particular, when you’re eating your meal, whether it is food you brought from the outside or your morning coffee or your water, be mindful. If your neighbor in their seat has their mask off and they’re exposed and they’re eating or drinking, that’s not a good time for you to be doing that,” she said.

When to fly

Booking a trip during off-peak hours and days may also be a good idea, Jolene said.

“That’ll reduce your exposure at the airport as well as when you’re landing and when you’re actually in the plane,” she said.

Other options

Not traveling offers the best protection against contracting COVID-19 from someone else. But, Jolene said, people have to balance the risk of contracting the virus with the need to, for instance, see an aging loved one.

Traveling by car under 500 miles offers the lowest risk. The risk increases beyond 500 miles because of required stops. But, even with that, Jolene said consider scheduling a more unconventional day for your holiday celebration.

“Maybe it would be easier if you had Thanksgiving on a Sunday or maybe on Wednesday so that even if you’re driving, you’re not on the road at the same time as a lot of other travelers,” she said. “That’ll decrease your exposure if you’re going to the gas station to pump gas or if you’re going in and getting a snack or using the restroom or even going to a rest area.”

Take a care kit

While you’re packing, make sure you have what Jolene calls a “self-sanitation kit.” This would include a package of antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and an extra mask in a zipper top bag. The zipper top will prevent cross contamination once you’re ready to change masks.

After returning home

If you do travel to high risk areas, the CDC recommends staying home if possible after returning, and monitoring your health for 14 days to protect yourself and others.

If you think you may have been exposed before or during your trip, upon your return, stay home as much as possible, avoid being around people at increased risk for serious illness from COVID-19 and consider getting tested.

About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: COVID-19