Traveling when vaccinated: These pandemic precautions are still needed

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To date, at least 33.2 million people in the United States have received one or both doses of a coronavirus vaccine since the start of distribution in December. But health experts stress that the vaccine is not a get-out-of-pandemic-free card — for travelers or anyone else.

Because we don’t know the full scale of the spread of new coronavirus variants and still have unanswered questions about vaccines, Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist with the COVID Tracking Project, said even vaccinated Americans need to remain vigilant about their public health mitigation efforts. While renting an RV and driving to the mountains might be safe, Rivera recommends avoiding high-risk activities such as flying, traveling to crowded places, and gathering with anyone outside of one’s household.

“You still need to reduce your risk until the majority of the population is protected,” she said.

The United States is, after all, only now coming down from its highest caseload peak, said Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“We’re not anywhere near to a place where we can control the spread of the virus,” Watson said. “So it is unfortunately not the best time to relax our guard on the personal mitigation measures we’ve been taking, like distancing and masking and just trying to avoid crowds.”

That advice applies to everyone, including those who have been vaccinated and those who have recovered from covid-19. And while you can feel more personally protected while traveling once you have been vaccinated, the science is still out on whether the vaccine will stop you from spreading the coronavirus to others.

That means that if you’re not vigilant after being vaccinated, you could be increasing the risk for people you’re traveling to see, others who live in the place you’re traveling to, and people in your community once you return home.

Watson said scientists are hoping to get more data from the vaccine companies on the issue of asymptomatic coronavirus transmission or infection soon.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist at George Mason University, has been acutely aware of the risks when traveling for work during the pandemic.

“I’m fully vaccinated, and I still take every single precaution with my traveling,” Popescu said. “The thing is, even as we learn more about vaccines and asymptomatic infection, it’s also that it’s 95 percent effective, so there’s still a 5 percent chance [of getting covid-19].”

Popescu said she believes strongly that continuing to wear a mask is not only about protecting herself and others, but also about tacitly encouraging others to continue wearing theirs while many remain at risk.

“It’s really important to be a good role model, a good steward,” Popescu said. “Because if [strangers] see you’re not wearing your mask, they don’t know that you’ve been vaccinated. Why contribute to misperceptions of safety?”

Until we know more about the vaccine, it’s best to wear a mask (or two), continue social distancing and follow other standard coronavirus precautions. A possible end to the pandemic is in sight, Watson reminded, as vaccines ramp up and transmission comes down.

“We’ve all sacrificed so much over the last year,” she said. “I would hate for people to be in a situation where they’ve been so careful this whole time and let down their guard and get someone sick, or get themselves sick, and potentially have a really severe outcome.”

Travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive

Destinations: Hawaii | Puerto Rico | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico

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