COVID-19 and travel: As airports are packed across the U.S., experts warn of 'a surge' of new cases after Thanksgiving

Travelers in face masks stand at a check-in counter surrounded by luggage at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va.
Travelers check in at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., on Tuesday. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite warnings from public health officials not to travel for Thanksgiving, plenty of people are doing just that. Reports are piling in from airports across the country that describe large crowds. While most travelers wear masks, some photos clearly show people without face coverings.

Video shared on Twitter from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, in Arizona, shows a packed, standing-room-only airport as people wait at their gates to board flights.

At San Francisco International Airport, people can be seen crowded together in seats with plenty of others standing nearby as they wait to fly out.

In Des Moines, airport officials told the Des Moines Register that they expect a 50 percent increase in normal passenger traffic in the lead-up to Thanksgiving. And CBS Boston shared a video of Logan International Airport of long lines of people waiting to board flights and a packed check-in terminal.

These reports come just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people not to travel for the holiday. “Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the organization says online. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.” The CDC also urged would-be travelers to ask themselves serious questions such as whether you or someone in your household is at an increased risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, whether cases are increasing in your community, and whether hospitals in your area are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, also warned this week about holiday travel, saying during an appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation that people who are flying for the holiday “are going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now.”

Doctors say this could lead to superspreader events across the country

“Airports have done a lot to try to become safer since the pandemic began, and we haven’t heard about airport-based outbreaks,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. But, he says, that was dependent on people following public health recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19, like physical distancing, wearing face masks as much as possible, and practicing good hand hygiene.

“Because Thanksgiving is a push for people to travel, most people who don’t adhere to protocols will be likely to be in airports,” Adalja says. “As a result, we will likely hear of more airport transmission.”

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that he’s especially concerned about some people not wearing masks. “If people are not wearing masks while in crowds, then they are obviously not taking the pandemic seriously,” he says. “It can’t be blamed on lack of awareness at this point.”

Adalja says that it’s “hard to predict” what, exactly, may cause a superspreader event, but he says the potential is there. “Clearly, there’s enough kindling at an airport that, if you have people not wearing masks and spacing out, a superspreader event can happen,” he says. And, because people are flying to different parts of the U.S., “it can start off chains of transmission that go all over the country,” Adalja says.

It’s not just about what’s happening in airports, though. It’s the entire travel experience that’s a potential problem, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s the traveling in the airports, being on planes and, of course, all those familial reunions that will be taking place,” he says. “If you put all those together, there are many, many opportunities for the virus to spread.”

That’s why Schaffner says that many public health experts are anticipating “a surge upon an existing surge” of new COVID-19 cases a few weeks after Thanksgiving.

“I’m extraordinarily concerned that this is going to continue to be a driver of more and more cases,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “There just seems to be a segment of the population who are defiant about wearing masks and social distancing.”

Russo says the crowds are a clear indication of COVID-19 fatigue. “People will justify what they want to do, and just don’t seem to want to accept the reality that all of these actions can spread the virus,” he says.

It will be difficult for public health experts to actually track how many infections come as a result of people flying, Dr. David Cennimo, assistant professor of medicine/pediatrics infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s going to be hard to figure out if you caught COVID because you took a plane or if you took a car and had dinner with your family,” he says. “But there’s no way that being in a crowded area with people you don’t know — especially if you’re not wearing a mask — is a good idea.”

If this week’s travel is any indication, Watkins says that people should expect the virus to “spread exponentially until the vaccine is widely available and many people have gotten it.”

How to stay safe if you fly

While the CDC stresses that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, the organization does offer up some tips online on how to make your flight as safe as possible:

  • Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered

  • Avoid close contact with anyone who is not in your household, ideally staying at least 6 feet apart from others

  • Wash your hands often or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer

  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth

Given the large crowds that are at airports right now, Adalja says, it’s also a good idea to try to stay as far back as possible from the gates where people are crowded. Instead, wait until it’s your time to board to get in line and, again, do your best to stay spaced apart.

“If need be, just be the last person on and the last person off the plane,” Russo says. “And wait for the crowds to clear at baggage claim.”

Overall, experts expect that things will get worse before they get better. “Christmas will be a rough time,” Adalja says. “There’s no indication cases and hospitalizations will be on a different trajectory nationally.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at 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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