An Infectious Disease Doctor Explains Whether It's Safe to Start Visiting Family Again

Zee Krstic

From Good Housekeeping

  • Social distancing orders may be lifted in your home state, but traveling to see family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic still presents risks.

  • If you're planning on relocating to be with family, you'll need to isolate for two weeks after doing so, per federal guidelines and infectious disease expertise.

  • One infectious disease expert shares a few ways you may be able to minimize risks when visiting loved ones during the pandemic.

Regardless of where you live, the novel coronavirus pandemic has likely split up your family and loved ones. Some may be living in states that are lifting portions of stay-at-home orders and reopening non-essential businesses, enabling residents to resume old habits in a new way. But the most vulnerable Americans are often those family members that we love most: our grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, those who won't be able to dive back into regular routines just yet. So even if your home state is lifting stay-at-home orders or travel bans, visiting them in person may be just as risky as it was when the pandemic first unfolded.

"My biggest concern is the older population. Those are the people who we need to continue to try to keep as protected as possible," says Sandra Kesh, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and the deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group in New York's Tri-State region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also continue to suggest avoiding gatherings of 10 or more. "If you're thinking about visiting someone who has actively tried to social distance as much as possible, you're introducing into their homes not only whatever you might be carrying but also whatever else you've had some sort of contact with."

While data greatly varies between states, Dr. Kesh explains that many COVID-19 patients in her care had no idea they were infected and had no symptoms. Up to a quarter, if not more, of COVID-19 cases in the United States are asymptomatic; so even if you've diligently social distanced as much as possible, there's a chance you could still pose a risk to loved ones despite feeling perfectly healthy. But Dr. Kesh also understands that staying away from loved ones might be problematic as the summer approaches. Some are dependent on care, and others may be feeling socially isolated, especially if they live alone. Below, she's recounting all the health risks that are still in place despite reopening measures — and how you might be able to reduce some risks if you must see a loved one.

Is it safe to travel to visit family?

In highly populated areas, using public transportation or communal transportation — any instance where you need to share the same air with strangers — can cancel out all of the social distancing you've done at home. There's a chance that someone might be sick and could be spewing infectious droplets into the air around you (which is why face masks and coverings are so essential). For that reason, Dr. Kesh says you should avoid planes, trains, or buses — it's best to keep these methods as spacious as possible for essential travel by those who absolutely have to use them.

What about traveling in your car, then? "The risk whenever you travel isn't zero, but a car does reduce some risk — the issue mostly, then, is when you have to stop," Dr. Kesh explains, acknowledging that many Americans already stop at gas stations or enter convenience stores on a frequent basis near their home. "But you want to limit this as much as you can — you could be doing all the right things, wearing a mask and keeping your distance. But as the weather gets warmer, people are going to start traveling more, and the rest stops are going to get busier, and it could become difficult, even if you're well intentioned, to keep that six-foot berth between you and everyone else."

The key to mitigating the infection risk at gas stations and other rest areas is to keep your hands clean, as well as avoiding touching your face before you can properly wash your hands. Dr. Kesh says bringing hand sanitizer is a must if you plan on refueling your car, and remember that any bacteria you come into contact with outside might follow you back into the car — onto your steering wheel, clutch, or on the surfaces of seats.

Is it risky for families to reunite for long-term stays?

If you're thinking of staying with family indefinitely after a stay-at-home order has lifted, Dr. Kesh says it's important to think about the set up of the new space. Will you have to share a bathroom? Will you need to share a bedroom with someone else? If your impact is minimal, you'll need to isolate yourself for at least two weeks to significantly lower COVID-19 risks to those inside the home, Dr. Kesh says. It's also best for both parties to try and isolate for as long as possible before the move to minimize any risks of infecting each other indirectly.

"The vast majority of people are going to exhibit symptoms, if they haven't already, within 10 to 14 days. Two weeks gives you the cushion to really be clear that you aren't sick, and then relocating becomes much less of a risk — but not totally zero risk because there's a chance that you could be asymptomatic."

How to reduce risks when visiting family:

It's important to stay connected with loved ones, Dr. Kesh says, especially those who may be living alone, as social distancing can easily turn into social isolation. Try to keep in constant or frequent contact with family and friends digitally during the next few months, so the need for a face-to-face visit may not feel so dire later on.

If you've decided on making a short-term visit to a loved one, there are a few precautions you can take to make sure your impact is as minimal as possible despite inherent risks.

  1. Keep your travel period as brief as possible. Even if everyone is wearing personal protective equipment in your area, you're still at risk while in public, especially in highly trafficked areas like gas stations. Try to make as few stops as possible along the way between your home and your destination, and be aware that some states may wish for you to stay at home altogether.

  2. Carry hand sanitizer and wash your hands if you can. You'll protect yourself by keeping your hands as clean as possible while outside the home, and washing them or sanitizing them at your destination could prevent you from tracking bacteria on surfaces in your car or elsewhere.

  3. Do not hug, kiss, or touch each other. If you can maintain a constant six-foot distance between yourself and your family member or friend, do so. Refrain from sharing food or beverages, and try not to touch the same surfaces if possible (phones, games, books, and more). It's not a bad idea to wear masks, either, as doing so may prevent any infectious droplets and particles from entering closed quarters around you.

  4. Stay outside if possible. If you have access to a backyard or a porch, this might be the best way to mitigate risks of visiting family during the pandemic, alongside the other stringent social distancing measures mentioned above. "Anything outdoors is always better than people sitting in a confined space and sharing the same air," Dr. Kesh explains.

  5. Try to avoid highly trafficked areas in the community. While restaurants or other businesses may be open nearby, you shouldn't congregate in groups there until local governance says it's safe to do so. If you can't meet in a private residence, try meeting in a public space that has wide open spaces, allowing you to remain six feet away from each other and from others around you. Doing so frequently, however, may be putting your community at risk — there are reports that some areas, including parks and beaches, are too crowded to encourage proper social distancing measures. Consider these public spaces an absolute last resort, and be cognizant of those around you who may be using the space to get exercise on their own.

As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.


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