Travel has COVID-19 risks, but Philadelphians are doing it anyway

Johanna Berger has long been waiting for her first big vacation since the pandemic struck: a 10-day trip to Europe with her husband at the end of August.

Since booking, however, Berger’s daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend got COVID-19 on a trip to Israel, she said, and the 57-year-old Bala Cynwyd woman has watched cases increase with the spread of new, highly transmissible variants.

The latest COVID surge has not deterred her plans, she said, although it has brought a twinge of anxiety to her otherwise excited outlook.

“I’m like, ‘I’m just going to do this and I’m going to ignore everything else,'” said Berger, who is up-to-date on vaccinations and continues to wear a mask indoors. “It’s been a really long time since we had a real vacation.”

Berger’s outlook is one many across the Philadelphia region — including those who consider themselves COVID cautious — have been adopting this summer. They’re plowing ahead with much-anticipated travel plans, sometimes to far-flung destinations where tourism was limited or restrictions were in place for much of the last two years. Sometimes, they’re coming back with the virus.

More than 200 million American adults are expected to take at least one vacation this summer, according to national surveys, about 35 million more than in summer 2021.

“It’s not an unreasonable decision to make, especially if you have your two primary vaccines and your two boosters,” if you’re over the age 50 or in other eligible groups, said Esther Chernak, director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University.

Although, jet-setters should keep in mind: While confirmed cases have leveled off nationally after an increase earlier this month, the rise in at-home testing means the official number is certainly a vast underestimate. Around the world, the extremely contagious BA.5 variant has resulted in a wave of new COVID infections, as well as reinfections.

So regardless of the destination, “there’s a good chance that you’re going to be exposed to it,” Chernak said.

» READ MORE: Why BA.5 is not a super-virus, and how the vaccines are still the best option against COVID

Jennifer Horney, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, is about to take a family vacation to Croatia. She and her family plan to mask indoors, she said, and to mostly do outdoor activities, such as hiking and biking.

As a public health expert, she knows as well as anyone that the trip comes with a risk, she said, but given that her family is up-to-date on vaccinations, it’s one they are willing to take.

“People are more than ever now being asked to calculate their own personal risk in the actions they take,” she said. “Certainly getting sick during travel is always a concern.”

How to travel safely during this COVID wave

There’s no way to eliminate all risk on your vacation, but Esther Chernak, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication, and Jennifer Horney, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, recommend doing the following to best protect yourself, your travel companions, and others around you:

  • Before you leave, make sure you are up to date on your COVID vaccinations.
    • If you’re 5 and older and have completed your primary series, this means getting a booster shot.
    • If you’re 50 and older, or 12 and older and moderately or severely immunocompromised, and have gotten a primary series and booster, this means getting a second booster at least four months after your first.
  • Before you leave, have a conversation with your physician, if you have one, about what you should do if you get sick during your travels. For some people who are at higher risk, these plans may include getting the antiviral Paxlovid if it’s available at your destination.
  • Wear a well-fitted mask, such as a KN95, at all times on planes, trains, and other crowded indoor spaces, even if most other people aren’t wearing one. “One-way masking isn’t perfect, but it confers some protection,” Chernak said.
  • If you’re traveling to a destination with pleasant weather, do most of your activities outside and eat as many meals outdoors as possible.
  • If you start to feel sick, get tested and isolate yourself as quickly as possible, so as not to spread the virus to others. Yes, even if it means missing fun vacation activities. “Now that we don’t have required testing and vaccination for a lot of locations,” Horney said, “we have put much more of that burden back onto people to do the right thing.”

Tara Fox, a Morgantown, Berks County-based travel agent who specializes in Disney World, Universal Studios, and all-inclusive resorts, said business has rebounded sharply, though some clients voice concerns about catching the virus on vacation.

“It’s more, ‘If this happens, what do I do?’ They’re trying to be prepared,” Fox said. “They kind of feel it’s inevitable, but they’re grateful when it doesn’t happen.”

By and large, she said, the clients at her agency, A Scoop of Magic, tell her the benefit of traveling again outweighs their personal risk of getting sick.

In July, Fox, 52, traveled to Disney World and Jamaica and felt relieved when she did not come back with the virus.

Candace Smoot, 35, of Norristown, stayed home for much of the last two years, taking only road trips to more isolated destinations. Earlier this month, she took a trip with her sister across Canada and got COVID-19 for the first time.

Her symptoms were mild — a sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue — and she said she may have attributed them to allergies had she not packed rapid COVID tests.

“That is why I haven’t traveled, because I was scared” of getting sick, she said. Still, “I don’t regret going on the trip.”

For Ramon Andres Urteaga, 52, of Merion Station, COVID has not crossed his mind during recent trips to Colombia or in planning an August trip with his son to Florida and Mexico.

“We’re not letting COVID rule our lives or fear of COVID rule our lives,” said Urteaga, who was hospitalized with the virus in March 2021 but is not vaccinated. “That fear is nonexistent, at least in my family.”

Taiba Ashkar, 41, isolated at her Chadds Ford home for a few days when she recently returned from Punta Cana, just in case she had been infected during her travels.

Heading into the trip, Ashkar said she had worries about airline problems, as well.

But ultimately, she said, her biggest complaints were about the quality of the food at the all-inclusive resort where she stayed, something she said seemed to be a combination of COVID supply-chain issues and financial constraints of the resort.

She ended up having to go to the hospital while on vacation — she isn’t sure whether it was something she ate or drank — and said it was overall a terrible trip.

Suzanne and Jim Lemley had an even worse experience on a June vacation to Europe. For two years, the couple had been looking forward to a cruise to Norway followed by a 10-day trip to Austria. They are both up-to-date on vaccinations, chose a cruise that required vaccination and a negative test to board, and agreed on precautions, such as avoiding group settings.

“We would’ve thought us both getting COVID on this trip was the worst-case-scenario thing that could happen,” Jim Lemley said.

But within days of arriving on the ship, not only did both 67-year-old Suzanne and her 71-year-old husband fall very ill with the virus, but they were forced to isolate with almost no medical attention, even after Jim, who has an autoimmune disorder, started showing signs of a severe infection. They were told that there were no antivirals on board, the couple said, and on the flight home, Jim started bleeding internally.

“This was the worst experience of my life so far,” said Suzanne Lemley. “It was the worst vacation of my life, if you want to call it a vacation. Talk about throwing $17,000 out the window.”

After they returned home to Wilmington and Jim was released from the hospital, the pair canceled another cruise they had scheduled for February.

“We aren’t doing any cruises,” Suzanne Lemley said. “We are going to do some land stuff, and in the United States.”

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