Christmas travel week is upon us but coronavirus cases continue to surge in Texas and across the country. Despite news of vaccines being distributed, local and national health officials are strongly making the same plea: Postpone travel and stay home to best protect yourself and others from getting or spreading the virus.
Many families must have tough conversations and uninvite people from any year-end large gatherings. They’re “an unsafe thing that can have real consequences,” Dr. Sarmistha Hauger, infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, told the American-Statesman earlier this year. “There are so many clusters that have been implicated with large groups.”
With big gatherings of 20 to 30 people, “every single time, we see people getting infected. … It can go like wildfire,” said Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer at Texas Children’s Pediatrics & Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
The current surge in Travis County cases can be blamed on travel and gathering during Thanksgiving week, according to interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. The county on Thursday reported 3,971 active cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — that’s the highest number recorded in the county during the pandemic.
Escott told county leaders last Tuesday that many of the positive cases involve entire families who got together for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“This is going to be a memorable Christmas for folks for the wrong reasons,” Escott said. “We are going to see unprecedented levels of cases and deaths in this community between now and the end of January if we don’t take action right now.”
While some folks will defy the health experts’ 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 like convenience stores and restaurants. Instead, use drive-thrus, pay for your gas outside, and use less-crowded rest stops for bathrooms.
AAA Texas said it expects most Texans to stay home this holiday season, with only about 6.6 million of them hitting the road from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3 — a 26% drop from last year.
If you are flying, maintain distance as much as possible. Wear your mask at all times on the plane and use hand sanitizer and wipes to clean your area.
“Getting there and back is the biggest risk area,” said Spinner, who recommends three-layer cloth masks and eye protection as well.
Air travel will be far less popular than last year, with only about 162,000 Texans expected to fly — a 63% drop from last year, according to AAA Texas.
Health experts suggest once you get to where you are going, rent a car instead of using a ride-hailing app. AAA Texas also recommends wiping it 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.
“Kids coming home from college is the biggest infection risk,” says Dr. Renee Higgerson, medical director for pediatric critical care at St. David’s Children’s Hospital.
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 student can get a COVID-19 test when they get home, that will help confirm their safety.
Until you know those results, doctors recommend physically distancing within the house and wearing masks for the first 14 days. Keep those college kids away from the people in your household who are most at risk.
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 says.
You can gather as a family virtually and even do fun things, like having everyone make the same dishes, cook together and eat together over video chat.
If there was any year worth saying goodbye to surrounded by the warm holiday comfort of loved ones, it’s this one. But Escott offered a stark warning about any large gatherings.
“People aren’t sensing right now that things are bad and hospitals are overwhelmed because they are not,” he said. “What we’re talking about is two or three weeks from now and trying to prevent that from happening.”