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Don't travel for Thanksgiving, health experts say. But if you do, follow these tips

By Nicole Villalpando, Austin American-Statesman on

Published in News & Features

Thanksgiving travel week is upon us, but coronavirus cases have surged across the country and sapped much of that annual excitement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued advice last week that couldn't have come at a worse time for those hoping for holiday comfort from loved ones: Postpone travel and stay home to best protect yourself and others from getting or spreading the virus.

While some folks will defy that advice for their own reasons, others are compelled to travel because of colleges closing for winter break or as part of their job as essential workers. So here are a few tips to help you stay safe on that journey this week.

— Travel by car if that's an option. Make as few stops as possible, and when you do, wear your masks and use hand sanitizer. Avoid crowded indoor spaces such as convenience stores and restaurants. Instead, use drive-thrus, pay for your gas outside and use less-crowded rest stops for bathrooms.

— If you are flying, maintain distance as much as possible. Wear your mask at all times on the plane and use hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes to clean your area. Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer at Texas Children's Pediatrics & Texas Children's Urgent Care, recommends three-layer cloth masks and eye protection as well.

For the family, "getting there and back is the biggest risk area," Spinner said.

Once you get to where you are going, rent a car instead of using a ride-hailing app. Wipe the vehicle down with sanitizing wipes before driving it.

If you are visiting family, know what levels of precautions they have taken and how they have interacted with people during the pandemic.

— Staying at a hotel might actually be better. You can minimize the chances of spread and socially distance from other people, unlike staying at a relative's house. Rooms are also cleaned between guests and, because of vacancies, often there is a time lag between booking guests in each room.

"If you stay at a family's house, you're going to have a large group of people congregating for a long time," said Dr. Brian Metzger, medical director of infectious diseases at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas.

"The safest thing to do is to not have these gatherings," he said. "I know it's terrible, and we want to go on with our lives as best we can. ... It seems like it's best to sit this one out."

— "Kids coming home from college is the biggest infection risk," said Dr. Renee Higgerson, medical director for pediatric critical care at St. David's Children's Hospital.

Some colleges have adjusted their schedules to end in-person classes at Thanksgiving to avoid college students coming home at Thanksgiving, then back to college for exams and then back home for Christmas. It limits the community transfer of germs to one event instead of three events.

 

Know your college's infection rates to assess what the risk might be. Many schools have online dashboards you can check.

Students should come home by car instead of by plane to reduce their risk. If they do need to take a plane, they should their mask and sanitize their hands often.

If the students can get a COVID-19 test when they get home, that will help confirm their safety.

Until you know those results, Metzger recommended physically distancing within the house and wearing masks for the first 14 days. Why 14 days? Metzger explained that 90% of the people exposed to the virus who get symptoms get them within 10 days, with a few going as far as 14 days before symptoms emerge.

Keep those college kids away from the people in your household who are most at risk.

ALTERNATIVES, LOOKING AHEAD

If conditions improve by Christmas, and you want to visit your extended family for that holiday instead, ideally everyone you want to visit with would quarantine for two weeks and get a COVID-19 test right before the holiday, said Darlene Bhavnani, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. They also would travel to see you in a way that allows them to maintain physical distance from fellow travelers.

Ultimately, though, the safest way to enjoy the holidays is with only the members of your household in person and the rest through virtual platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime, she said.

You can gather as a family virtually and even do fun things, such as everyone making the same dishes and cooking and eating together over Zoom.

Bhavnani knows, though, that doesn't mean people are going to do that.

"That's not likely when people have the itch to travel and the pull of loved ones to celebrate with," Bhavnani said.

(c)2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC