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COVID-safe travel tips if you can’t postpone your holiday plans

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SACHA PFEIFFER, host:

The concern about the increased spread of new COVID fueled by the Delta and Omicron variants comes just as we head into one of our busiest travel weeks of the year. And for international travelers, it can mean a bewildering array of travel restrictions, testing options and quarantine requirements, all of which vary from country to country. We asked Kelly Lee about this. She is a Professor of Global Health Management at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She also leads the Epidemiology and Borders Project, which looks at cross-border measures to control epidemics. He tells me if you’re an international traveller, expect a headache.

Kelly Lee: You know, there’s going to be a lot of stuff to move around and there’s probably a lot of stress if you’re going on vacation. And yes, it really is a lot of new rules. They are really trying to slow down this variant and…

Pfeiffer: Don’t block it, just slow it down, basically.

Lee: Absolutely. It’s — I don’t think we, at this point, can prevent it. It is increasing all over the world. And it’s a matter of slowing it down so that it doesn’t hit all at once. It is trying to support people in a lot of countries as quickly as possible.

Pfeiffer: Well, that’s interesting because some people get frustrated with the restrictions that prevent people from a certain country from coming. However, suppose you are an American returning from Africa. You are allowed to enter the United States, even if the African citizen is not.

Lee: That’s right. You – I mean, you made a really good point. And these targeted actions will never be effective, because by the time we heard about Omicron, it had been in circulation for several weeks, some say even two months. So it was really almost performative. You know, it looked like the government had to do something. And they kind of target where they think the omicron variable is coming from. But in fact, it was clear that she was not only coming from South Africa.

And so we have this — you know, a situation where, well, if governments are not going to restrict everyone or at least test and isolate everyone, you know, how far can we slow down that alternative? This is a major debate in our research because different countries have approached this challenge in different ways. So it was no coincidence that Israel and Hong Kong identified the omicron very quickly. They found it in travelers who were in quarantine. And so the virus entered, of course, but they did not allow it to spread to the population on a larger scale. Keep them in quarantine.

And that’s the difference, is that we use tests to identify infected travelers. But quarantine must go hand in hand. As you know, you can’t take everyone with you. And then, if you test but don’t isolate, you’re actually not preventing the variable from spreading more widely – the wider community. And so the question is, you know, why didn’t the government do more testing and more quarantine earlier? And we can ask that from a lot of governments.

Pfeiffer: Many people with travel plans worry about whether they should go on their trips at all. Do you think there is a safe way to travel during the pandemic?

Lee: Well, I would say first of all, if you can avoid travel at this time. I will postpone or postpone it. But if you find yourself having to travel for any reason, there are ways to reduce your risk. Upgrade the masks you wear. So if you’re wearing cloth masks, it’s a good idea to get the surgical mask but, really, the N95. These breathing masks should be worn, if you can. I know not everyone can do that. But wear it.

Try not to stay in places like crowded airports, cafes, etc. You know, just keep moving. Staying in well-ventilated places – all the things we know about. And then when you get to your destination, it’s probably best not to go to places where you know there might be people who aren’t immune, where there are big crowds, where they’re not wearing masks. So there are ways to travel for sure. But it really is – no travel is risk-free at this time. And I think that’s what people should remind themselves of.

Pfeiffer: This is Kelly Lee, professor of global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Thank you very much for the information and advice.

Lee: Ah, you’re most welcome, Sasha. Copy provided by NPR, copyright NPR.

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