CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s OK to plan, but don’t pack your suitcases just yet.
Would-be travelers, hunkered down at home for the past 10 months, are eager to hit the road again.
But travel-health experts are urging both patience and caution, even as an increasing number of Americans are receiving vaccines protecting them against COVID-19.
Their advice: It’s probably best to skip an elaborate spring break trip this year, and set your sights on summer vacation instead.
“It’s not going to be normal, but I think this summer will be a heck of a lot better than last summer,” said Dr. Frank Esper, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Because the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines take more than a month to be fully effective — and because most Ohioans likely won’t get vaccinated until April or May — it may be late spring or early summer until enough of the population has been immunized to reduce the risks of travel, according to Esper.
That said, individual travelers will continue to make their own travel choices based on their unique circumstances. “Everybody has to make their own decisions based on what their risks are, where they’re going and who they’re visiting,” Esper said.
Dr. Amy Edwards, associate medical director for infection control at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, recommends that even people who have already received the COVID-19 vaccine continue to be cautious about their behavior, including restricting travel, until more people have been immunized.
She said she doesn’t believe it’s necessary to delay travel until the country reaches herd immunity status – that is, when enough of the population is immune, either from infection or vaccination, that the disease stops rapidly spreading.
Rather, she said, the number of daily infections and deaths need to decline, and the hospitals need to empty out. “Given the state of our hospitals and how overrun everything is, we need to be careful for just a little bit longer,” said Edwards.
Edwards, who as a front-line doctor received the vaccine this month, said even though she herself likely will be safe to travel soon, members of her immediate family will not be.
She also noted that scientific research has yet to determine whether those who have been vaccinated against the virus are still able to spread it.
Older people, in particular — including those who have been vaccinated — should be extra cautious about travel until more of the population has been immunized.
Vaccines, generally, are less effective among the older population. And though both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been tested on and proven effective among older adults, it’s likely they aren’t as effective as they are for younger adults, she said.
“You have to think that everybody around you could have COVID, especially right now, with the numbers out of control,” she said. “Lower risk doesn’t mean zero risk. It’s not time to whip our masks off and go and do whatever we want.”
The details of travel matter, too.
Edwards makes a distinction between travel for work and pleasure.
“For me, leisure travel is less vital, considering how full our hospitals are,” she said. “That type of travel really should wait.”
In addition, it’s important to do research about your destination, said Esper. The virus is different from country to country, state to state – even city to city. Numerous health advisories continue to restrict or discourage travel between states and countries.
The worst outbreaks in the U.S. right now are in California. Before that, it was Texas, and before that, New York.
“It’s not just one big pandemic,” said Esper. “It’s all these little epidemics that are combining into one pandemic.”
Both Esper and Edwards agree that air travel is generally less safe than car travel.
Even though air circulation on planes is excellent, social distancing is nearly impossible and mask use is inconsistent, as fliers eat, drink and sleep on board.
That said, short plane trips generally are better than long-haul flights, said Edwards.
Edwards said she has not traveled anywhere in recent months, and neither have most of her colleagues. “Every doctor I know has been hunkered down for nine months,” she said, adding, “Doctors tend to be extremely risk averse.”
She has, however, contemplated taking a close-to-home skiing trip with her family this winter. Esper said he is hoping for a summer trip to the national parks in Utah.
“There are ways that you can travel, stimulate the economy and do it in a safe way,” said Edwards. “It all comes down to risk. You have to choose the level of risk that you’re comfortable with.”