Visiting with family over the holidays is a vital tradition that provides an opportunity to set aside the everyday grind and enjoy a little togetherness with the people who know and understand us best. Of course, gathering with extended family often requires at least some form of travel—whether by car across town or by plane across the country. Unfortunately, with the cloud of COVID-19 still hovering over us, holiday travel is significantly more complicated than usual this year.
Is there any way to travel safely so we don’t miss the opportunity to bond with family this holiday season? Possibly. But according to Joan Duggan, MD, an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist at UTMC, doing so is going to be very difficult with the pandemic still underway. “The CDC recommends that the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to stay home during the holidays,” she says. “If you want to see your family, using virtual methods such as Zoom or phone calls may be the best option.” She also advises limiting in-person celebrations to those who are normally in your household sharing the same living quarters, bathrooms, and kitchen.
Those who do choose to travel this holiday season are urged to educate themselves on ways to decrease their risk of COVID-19 exposure, which will depend on a variety of factors, such as where they’re going, how they’re getting there, who they’ll be with, and what they do both before they travel and after they arrive at their destination. Dr. Duggan notes that the CDC website is an excellent source for information on travel risk during COVID and practical ways to reduce that risk.
The CDC website also provides a breakdown of travel methods based on risk. For example, the site points out that travel by car with members of your same household is one of the safest modes of travel—though the risk may increase depending on where you’re going and other factors. Traveling by cruise ship is not recommended in any form at this time, and traveling by air has risks as well. “Whatever mode of transportation you’re using and wherever you’re headed, be sure to check the CDC website ahead of time regarding any travel advisories or restrictions that may be in place at your destination. And remember, this pandemic is a very fluid situation and restrictions can change very rapidly and unexpectedly, so be prepared with flexible travel plans this holiday season,” Dr. Duggan advises.
In addition to questions on safe holiday travel during COVID, Dr. Duggan is often asked whether celebrating the holidays with an established social “bubble” or “pod”—i.e. a group of people outside your household with whom you feel safe and comfortable interacting—is a feasible option. Again, the answer is “possibly.” She points out that, just as with traveling during COVID, many factors can influence the level of risk the bubble concept presents. “If you have another household with whom you are in close contact on a regular basis and they’ve also been isolating, it is possible to create a pod or social bubble. However, if people in that pod aren’t wearing masks when outside the home, actively practicing hand hygiene, and social distancing, they could inadvertently spread COVID within the group. Currently, we know that the only safe and effective way to stop spreading COVID is to stay with members of your own household,” she states.
Dr. Duggan emphasizes that whenever we talk about decreasing the risk of getting or spreading COVID, we need to think in terms of risk stratification, with some methods being riskier than others. “The safest way to ensure your health and the health of your family is to avoid social gatherings over the holidays, maintain social distancing and wear a mask in public, and practice hand hygiene using an alcohol-based hand rub with 60 percent alcohol after touching different surfaces. A higher-risk approach is to interact with another family or household in a social pod or bubble. The risk gets even higher as you widen your social contacts and increase your level of activities that put you in contact with people over a long period, especially in indoor environments,” she says.
For more information on how to do a social pod or bubble, consult the Michigan Department of Human Services website or the CDC website.