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Ask The Expert: Can You Travel Safely During COVID?

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People wearing protective face masks arrive at Capital Airport, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China, November 5, 2020.
Thomas Peter
People wearing protective face masks arrive at Capital Airport, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China, November 5, 2020.

It's the time of year when people would normally be making plans to visit loved ones for the holidays or vacation over winter break — buying plane tickets, booking hotels and planning itineraries.

But prospective travelers have a lot more to consider in 2020, as the pandemic has upended life as we know it. The U.S. is seeing record-breaking growth for new coronavirus cases and a rapidly rising number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is air travel safe right now?

Planes have high efficiency particulate air filters that do a great job. But what they don't necessarily protect you from is the person sitting right next to you. You want to be as careful as you can before you come so you can reduce your own risk. Isolate for two weeks before you travel, but know, there is a chance that you could be exposed during the flight. And even if you are tested, the safest thing to do would be to test and stay distant for a little while before you visit with family.

How accurate are these rapid tests? And if someone takes one right after they get off a plane, has there been enough time for the virus to incubate?

The tests are not very accurate when someone is first exposed. We know that the first few days that someone is infected, they're much more likely to miss to be a false negative. The rapid tests are not as good as the other tests, so they also do miss some positives. Someone who flies in right away and takes a rapid test and it's negative, there is not a lot of confidence you can get from those test results. The person would want to make sure to still do every possible precaution in their interactions and still be distanced — open a window if they're inside or have the event outside so that they are protecting themselves in other ways.

Will having smaller gatherings minimize risk?

You reduce risk by getting together in small groups outside when possible. We don't want to lock our loved ones in a closet and never see them. That's not the answer. But if you have COVID-19 symptoms, or have a COVID-19 positive test, you should be quarantining and in those circumstances, you really should not be going in-person to any gathering. For everyone else, we need to celebrate as safely as we can and balance the joy of seeing those we love with this very, very serious virus that can be asymptomatic. It really is going in a very dangerous direction right now in the country. Risk has never been higher

Are outdoor potlucks a safe option?

Potlucks are especially risky if people are bringing all different dishes to all share together with shared utensils. And so you want to think not only about how many people you have, but moving away from a potluck model to a model where there's only one person serving or where you pre-serve and put separate things on different tables or areas, so people are sharing utensils as little as possible and not cross-contaminating,

What about ordering catered food?

The risk is not in the food itself; it's in how many hands are touching everything and the shared surfaces. So whether people choose to make food at home or from a restaurant, there's somebody preparing that food either way. What we want to do is, once the food comes in, think about how we're serving. Don’t have it all on a buffet table where everybody's getting close to each other and leaning over the same food to to serve themselves. You want to keep people distance, maybe have just one person serve.

Is wearing a mask enough to protect me and my family?

It's important for everyone to recognize that masks are not 100% effective, even if they are worn properly. It's not a 100% reduction in the risk of transmission. And so if you're in a crowded elevator, even if everyone's wearing a mask, there is still some risk of transmission. Again, that risk may not be that great if everyone is wearing a mask and you're not in that elevator for a long period of time, but it’s not zero. It's important to take multiple steps to prevent transmission; wearing a mask is one but avoiding those sorts of close.


  • David Dowdy, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Amber D’Souza, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org  or tweet @TPRSource.

*This interview was recorded on Monday, November 9.

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Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon