People all across the U.S. decided not to travel to see loved ones for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, while the coronavirus surged far and wide. But as we approach our second holiday season in the COVID pandemic, things are a lot different. Millions of people are now vaccinated, making the idea of traveling and gathering with others a much safer proposition this year than it was in 2020. And several health officials have agreed, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, who has actually encouraged people to gather with family and friends during the 2021 holidays. That doesn't mean there aren't any risks to traveling during COVID, however—even if you're vaccinated.
On Nov. 12, White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, went on The New York Times' podcast The Daily to discuss the current state of the COVID pandemic in the U.S., as well as what individuals should be concerned about right now in terms of catching and spreading the virus.
As far as holiday travel goes, Fauci acknowledged that it is a far different situation this year than last year. The infectious disease expert did not gather with his family for Christmas in 2020, noting then that it was the "first time in more than 30 years" that he did not spend the holiday with his adult daughters. But vaccinations have helped significantly mitigate the risks of gathering for the holidays.
"If you're a vaccinated person, your family is vaccinated, and you are in a situation where the people that you interact with are vaccinated, you can have a very good holiday," Fauci said on The Daily. "You can enjoy the warmth and the companionship of your family in Thanksgiving, you could do the same thing over Christmas."
But it's still important to know where you might run into trouble when traveling. According to Fauci, the biggest risk right now is the "whole process of traveling and interacting and mingling with people." Surprisingly, the infectious disease expert said that getting on a plane itself is actually not all that risky.
This is likely because the air in airplane cabins is heavily filtered and typically safer than most indoor environments. Cabin air gets completely changed every three minutes on average when an airplane is in air, Bjoern Becker, senior director of product management for ground and digital services with Lufthansa Group airlines, told National Geographic.
"On a plane, it's not necessarily a high risk at all, so I believe that people who are vaccinated, who when they go into the airport, in a congregate indoor setting, they follow the CDC recommendations and wear a mask, I believe people can and should travel during the holidays," Fauci said.
Some virus experts still advise that you exercise more caution on airplanes while the pandemic is ongoing. Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo, previously told Best Life that if you're eating on a plane, you should avoid doing so at the same time as everyone else.
"When the food first comes, the reaction is everyone drops the masks and eats the meal or the snack that they give you," Russo said. "What you should do instead is actually be patient. You wait until everyone's done and puts their mask back up, which usually takes somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes, and then that's when you should go ahead and eat your meal."
Russo also advised keeping your mask on as much as possible, even if you are eating. "The advice I use on the plane is to avoid dropping your mask if possible. But if you have to drop your mask when you're on the plane, pop your mask back up between bites," he said.
And if you're not vaccinated, traveling and gathering in any way could put you and others at serious risk. "If you are among the unvaccinated and you get into winter, then you're gonna have a tough time. And I think there is a possibility that you will see an uptick of cases that will be disproportionately borne as a burden among the unvaccinated," Fauci warned, adding that upticks in cases could also lead to more breakthrough infections among vaccinated people.