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As the U.S. is coming down from a postholiday surge in COVID-19 cases, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a message for the public: Stay close to home.
“I would really encourage people to not travel,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Monday briefing from the White House COVID-19 response team. She specifically called out air travel as being potentially problematic, saying, “There’s more gathering that happens in airports.”
The CDC also echoes this messaging online, warning that COVID-19 cases “are extremely high” and that people should “avoid travel.” In addition to recommending that people follow standard COVID-19 precautions, like wearing masks, staying at least 6 feet apart from others, avoiding crowds and washing your hands often, the CDC’s website currently says this in bold: “Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
Masks are required on all public transportation — including in airports — due to an executive order issued by President Biden on Jan. 21. The Transportation Security Administration recently announced it will recommend that transit authorities institute fines ranging from $250 for the first offense to $1,500 for repeat offenses for those who refuse to wear a mask. “Starting on February 2, 2021, TSA will require individuals to wear a mask at TSA airport screening checkpoints and throughout the commercial and public transportation systems,” a press release from the organization reads. The requirement will stay in effect until May 11, 2021.
Walensky issued the warning going into Presidents’ Day weekend, which is typically a long weekend for many Americans.
Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that he “strongly agrees” with Walensky’s advice. “I would double mask if I had to travel,” he says.
Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees that travel is especially risky. “To the extent that travel increases transmission of COVID-19, not traveling is better than traveling at limiting transmission,” he tells Yahoo Life. Kulkarni recommends that people reserve travel for “extenuating circumstances” like essential work or providing care for loved ones who may need it.
Any time people interact, there will be a risk of COVID-19 transmission, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. The new warning “may be perhaps tied to new variants increasing in different parts of the country. With that, there is a heightened risk of infection,” he says.
While there hasn’t been public data tying new COVID-19 infections to airports, Watkins says that’s not shocking. “Airports are transient stops, so the end damage occurs when the traveler reaches their destination,” he says. Meaning, the places that people travel to will see an increase in COVID-19 cases —not necessarily the airports.
If you need to fly, there are some areas of the airport that are considered higher risk than others. Adalja cites food courts — where people are typically crowded together and unmasked while eating and drinking — bathrooms and gate areas as potentially being the highest risk during the pandemic. But, he says, “places where you can spread out,” like large concourses may be safer.
While Adalja points out that “there has been a lot of effort to make airports safer,” he adds that, “the less people interact, the less opportunities there are for the virus to spread.” The new mask mandate for public transportation may help make airports safer as a whole, but Adalja notes that “most people in airports are wearing masks pretty vigilantly already.”
But Kulkarni says the mask mandate can do something. “Wearing a mask in public indoor settings such as airports can help lower the risk of viral transmission,” he says. “This, in combination with scaling up vaccinations as quickly as possible, are two of our best ways to continue to try and bring the pandemic under control.”
And, as for whether he thinks people will actually follow Walensky’s recommendation, Adalja has this to say: “No.” Watkins is a little more hopeful, saying, “Some will, some won’t.”
If you’re thinking about traveling, Watkins recommends keeping this in mind: “It’s a war: virus vs. humanity.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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