This Week in Pandemic: To Travel or Not to Travel? - WhoWhatWhy

This Week in Pandemic: To Travel or Not to Travel?

Travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It is a fascinating thing that one year into this pandemic, we still do not understand who is most vulnerable to serious disease and hospitalization. Yes, there are rules. Lots and lots of rules. And yes, everyone I know tells me they are following the rules, or at least those they choose to follow, and complain that they don’t understand why others aren’t following them. 

But, although the CDC and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, advise not traveling as serious coronavirus cases rise, many of my acquaintances discount this advice. They travel in cars, they travel in planes, their college-age children fly home for holidays, they all fly in the face of this advice. 

Which raises questions for people like me who pass judgment. Why is it my (fill in the blank) feels comfortable going to Mexico for fun in the sun when the CDC issued a statement in early December warning that travelers should avoid all travel to Mexico? Why do I have to suffer through cabin fever, staying home month after month, in winter, with no visitors, as advised by my state’s and the CDC’s guidelines? 

Even more frustrating is the fact that my acquaintances travel and return in excellent health and think they have nothing to do with infecting anyone else because they wash their hands, wear a mask, and stay six feet away from other people. 

And yet, right now, one out of every five Californians is reported to be positive for COVID-19, there are a record 128,000 COVID-19 patients in US hospitals, and spikes in serious cases of COVID-19 are reported after every holiday. 

It is perhaps not surprising that the travel issue is viewed in such different ways. Without a unified policy for coronavirus containment and mitigation, it is a situation in which every person is left to gauge the risks and benefits for themselves. 

But that aside, have travel risks and their effect on the pandemic been studied? The answer is yes, and in this week’s wrap up, we offer some stories to read as you prepare for (or wish for) your next trip. 

In this article, three transportation-science analysts from universities in Europe and the United States discuss the role of transportation research in addressing global challenges, including past and ongoing work that quantifies the risks of disease spreading through air- and road-transport networks. In fact, studies have shown that travel is strongly correlated with the spread of COVID-19 between communities. 

Mobility data is now available on a COVID-19 impact analysis platform where it is possible to see trips per person and percentages of out-of-state and out-of-country trips on a state-by-state basis. Even a cursory analysis of this data suggests that travel impacts the spread of COVID-19, and yet, many states have no statewide travel restrictions in place. On the other hand, at a country-by-country level, the actual restrictiveness of travel restrictions does seem to match up with the severity of local coronavirus conditions. 

A small number of remote island countries have remained completely virus free because they have closed their borders to out-of-country visitors, further supporting the idea that foreigners import disease.

Lastly, air travel may be as safe as going to your local grocery store… if not for the whole airport thing. Studies that have evaluated the gate-to-gate risk have concluded that air travel is pretty safe (if you wear a mask), but that having to walk through the airport itself complicates things. The results of a study including airports in the infectious equation (the “curb-to-curb risk”) are not due out until later this year.

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