At the start of 2022, with pandemic fatigue spreading and the majority of Canadians having received at least two vaccine doses, many were hoping this summer might finally be a return to normal.
The majority of public health restrictions were lifted across Canada in the spring and early summer, including measures such as requirements to mask in public indoor spaces and to be vaccinated to fly within the country.
However, in June and July, new Omicron subvariants spurred a new wave of COVID-19 cases. So is it actually safe to be traveling right now?
Experts say there’s no use in postponing trips indefinitely in the hopes of COVID-19 being eradicated.
“COVID is not disappearing anytime soon,” Dr. Angela Cheung, a senior scientist at the University Health Network in Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
However, she stressed that learning to live with COVID-19 doesn’t mean abandoning mitigation efforts and allowing it to spread rampantly — it means making COVID safety a regular part of your schedule, including when you are planning for a trip.
The number one thing that travelers can do to cut down their risks quickly and simply is to mask in indoor spaces while traveling and anywhere else they feel the need to, experts say.
Cheung compared it to bringing an umbrella along in case of rain.
“Do you need a mandate to tell you that you should carry an umbrella?” Cheung said.
“If you’re willing to get wet, it’s OK not to carry an umbrella. If you’re willing to get sick with COVID, sure, don’t mask.”
Dr. Kieran Quinn, a clinician-scientist with Toronto’s Sinai Health System and assistant professor with the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that “a mask is better than no mask, but there are certain types of masks, like N95s and KN95s that offer better protection.” He recommended securing some of those before a trip if it’s feasible.
“People should be wearing masks in indoor spaces where there’s lots of other people around or in places where there might be high risk people who are immunocompromised or older,” he said. “We continue to strongly recommend that people wear masks. And I hope that people will continue to do so, because that has been shown to protect themselves and others from infection.”
Cheung echoed that she would personally wear an N95 on a plane, but said her main advice is to “wear a mask that you would wear” and that you are comfortable in.
If you want to wear a higher-quality mask in order to be safer in enclosed spaces such as a plane, and you don’t usually wear N95s in your everyday life, Cheung recommended practicing wearing one for at least the duration that you would be on the plane, in order to see if it is too uncomfortable and you’re touching it all the time, or if you can handle it.
BE UP TO DATE ON VACCINES
Vaccines cut the risk of severe illness and provide some protection against transmission, even against these more transmissible variants, and anyone looking to travel should be vaccinated, experts say.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Brian Conway told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview last week that anyone eligible for a fourth shot should attempt to get one before embarking on a big trip.
“If you haven’t had three shots, don’t travel,” he said.
In Quinn’s opinion, a fourth dose might not be necessary right away, but “certainly the three doses have proven to be very effective at reducing transmission and severe illness. And our rates of third doses in Ontario and in Canada, we still have room for improvement.”
PRIORITIZE SAFER EVENTS AND LOCATIONS
At this stage in the pandemic, conflicting advice from governments and experts means many Canadians are sorting out what safe means to them.
“Safe is a personal choice, right? And it comes down to people’s comfort with risk and everybody has different thresholds for risk, similarly to investing or crossing the street,” Quinn said.
In this light, the experts offer these thoughts to consider if you’re looking to minimize your risk while travelling.
Before confirming a trip:
Staying closer to home rather than jetting around the world could be a safer concept, experts say. A road trip, in which you know who will be in close contact with you in the vehicle, may be safer than other modes of travel.
“Certainly, I would feel more comfortable in the confines of my car with my family than I would in a public airport with a whole host of other people, particularly if those people are un-masked,” Quinn said.
If traveling internationally, you could do some research beforehand into the vaccination rates of different countries, Conway suggested, adding that this is as much a protective measure for other countries as for the travellers, who shouldn’t risk bringing COVID-19 to a country that has been deprived of vaccine access.
While on the trip:
Trying to find more things to do outside vs. inside could help, experts say.
“Obviously, going on a nature hike where it’s not very crowded, that is safer than going to a hockey game or a concert,” Cheung said. “So what you do on your vacation may determine your risk as well.”
She added that with these new COVID variants, outdoors isn’t always guaranteed safe location.
“People can get it outdoors as well, especially in fairly close contact outdoors,” she said.
“Personally, I would say I would opt for trips like hikes and outdoor activities and sort of minimizing indoor public spaces as much as possible for the protection and safety of my own family,” Qunn said.
While crowded indoor spaces are the big danger, outdoor events where people are shoulder to shoulder for many hours can still be dangerous, experts say.
“If you’re gonna travel, avoid the areas you already know are at risk of transmitting COVID,” Conway said. “Crowded indoor spaces for a long period of time. So as much as possible, it’s the summer, if you’re gonna go to a foreign country, eat on the patio.
“If I were to travel, I would not go see some indoor stadium event […] with 30,000 of your closest friends, all yelling at each other. “
Whenever it’s possible to know a building or event’s ventilation levels, that information can help you decide whether a visit is a good idea or not.
“In Asia, there are cinemas where they post how good the ventilation is,” Cheung said. “We really should be doing that for everywhere, in indoor places, malls and shops and restaurants and things like that.”
“If you have good airflow and clearance and have HEPA filters and other things, then your risk is lower.”
For instance, a crowded outdoor festival could actually be riskier than walking through a large, well-ventilated museum that isn’t very crowded.
If you’re traveling with immunocompromised or elderly individuals, or traveling to visit someone high-risk, take that into account when assessing acceptable risk levels.
HAVE BACK-UP PLANS
If you contract COVID-19 on vacation, it could mean needing to extend the trip in one location to isolate, and that’s something to consider when planning a trip.
Cheung added that if you don’t take the time to rest, not only would you be putting others at risk, but you could exacerbate your own illness, and needing to be hospitalized in another country could cost a lot of money if you don’ do not have insurance coverage.
If the trip has the potential to expose you to more situations where you could get COVID-19, think about whether you have somewhere to stay and recover if the worst case scenario comes true.
KNOW WHEN TO STAY HOME
The bottom line is: don’t travel when you’re sick, experts say.
“Although you might have that vacation booked, and the last thing you want to do is cancel or delay it, if you have symptoms suggestive of COVID, then you need to stay home and not go out into the public, because that’s putting others at risk ,” Quinn said.
“If you have any symptoms of any kind, you should not travel,” Conway said. “I think that if you are sick, you stay home.”
I have added that rapid test results should not be used as a justification for traveling when sick, for instance, if a rapid test is negative but you have a new, persistent cough. Rapid tests are less sensitive than PCR tests, and are more likely to give you a false negative at the beginning of acute illness than a PCR would.
After a difficult two years of pandemic isolation and restrictions, Cheung said it makes sense that people want to travel.
“I can totally understand that people need a vacation,” she said. “And so it is balancing the positive side of the vacation and travel versus the risks of that.”