It’s been 17 months since the coronavirus pandemic began in Louisiana and many residents have been itching to travel, a momentary escape from a reality that now includes a surge in coronavirus cases stemming from the delta variant.
As individuals and their loved ones weigh airplane tickets already purchased months ago, we asked some experts for advice in a rapidly changing world.
How risky is it to fly in an airplane if you’ve gotten the COVID-19 vaccine and wear a mask?
“It’s ultimately up to the individual to assess the level of risk they are comfortable when considering whether to travel. Unvaccinated people remain at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19, with more than 90% of those hospitalized with the virus not fully vaccinated. People who have been fully vaccinated and comply with the federal mask guidelines for air travel are at significantly less risk than those who have not been vaccinated, but we have seen some breakthrough cases, particularly with the delta variant. However, the majority of breakthrough cases are less severe, don’t require hospitalization, and are often asymptomatic,” said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, an infectious disease physician and system medical director of hospital quality at Ochsner Health.
“If someone feels that they must fly at this time, they should take every available precaution. Some people won’t feel comfortable flying even with those precautions taken and will choose not to fly. We continue to strongly recommend that people take those precautions as much as possible to stop the spread of the dangerous delta variant,” said James Garrow, communications director at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
“Airplanes have great air filtration, but it isn’t foolproof. So if you are particularly high risk (for example, if you’re on immunosuppressants, or have multiple chronic conditions), then I’d hold off flying. Otherwise, travel as needed — we can’t all stay at home forever! — but be sure to wear a high-quality, good-fitting mask for both the flight AND the airport visit,” said Dr. Megan L. Ranney, an emergency room physician by training and director at the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health, professor at Brown University and associate dean of strategy and innovation at the school of public health.
What would you advise if you’re sitting next to an unvaccinated passenger on an airplane who is not wearing a mask while eating or drinking during the flight?
“If you decide to fly, you may not have control over whether you are sitting next to a vaccinated or unvaccinated passenger — you may not even know their vaccination status. Again, we encourage you to assess your personal situation. Those who are immunocompromised may want to hold off on travel at this time. What you can control is how well you protect yourself before, during and after travel. Based on guidance from the CDC and the Louisiana Department of Health, all people — vaccinated or unvaccinated — should wear a mask while indoors if a distance of at least 6-feet cannot be maintained. You should also continue to regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Get plenty of rest before your flight and maintain a balanced diet. Stay hydrated — drinking water can keep the mucous membranes in your throat and nasal passages from drying out, which can protect you from germs. You can also bring your own hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes so that you can easily wipe down frequently touched items such as armrests, seatbelts, tray tables and any touchscreen entertainment systems. Just make sure your hand sanitizer is 3.4 ounces or less, per TSA policy, and that it contains at least 60% alcohol content,” Kemmerly, the Ochsner Health expert said.
Should some individuals cancel or postpone flights right now?
“We encourage you to look at your personal risk factors when making the decision. If you are immunocompromised, you may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 after vaccination. Keep in in mind, too, that while your vaccination may protect you, children under the age of 12 are still unable to receive the vaccine and may be at higher risk of contracting the virus. If you choose to fly, remember that wearing a facial mask over your nose and mouth on airplanes is still required on all U.S. flights. After travel, self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and get tested immediately should any symptoms develop. If you know or suspect you have been exposed to COVID-19, CDC recommends that you get tested, even if you’ve been fully vaccinated, 3-5 days after exposure — or as soon as symptoms develop,” Kemmerly said.
What is the advice from the CDC about traveling?
The CDC recommends holding off travel until being fully vaccinated. While traveling, everyone is encouraged to wear masks, including those who have been vaccinated.
Here’s what the Louisiana Department of Health recommends for safe travel.
Here’s more information about how COVID-19 spreads from one person to another.