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Omicron and holiday travel: Top doctors share what you need to know now

While you don’t have to cancel your travel plans, doctors say you should take these special precautions, especially if you have young children.
Holiday travelers wearing face masks are seen at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 23, 2020.
Holiday travelers walk through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.Ting Shen / Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

If you’re like me, your Covid risk-tolerance gauge is exhausted. But the Omicron variant is on the rise around the world and present in 35 states – just as sleigh bells are ringing. And like the Covid-19 variants before it, Omicron doesn’t care if you have non-refundable flights booked.

I recently spoke with some of the country’s best doctors to get their latest guidance on Omicron and holiday travel.

Here’s what Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Dr. Kavita Patel, a D.C.-based physician and health policy expert; and Dr. Vin Gupta, pulmonologist and public health expert told me.

Below is our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q: The flights are booked, and the grandparents are excited. Am I safe to fly with my kids?

Dr. Gupta: I think it’s absolutely safe to travel on airplanes. That’s why I’m traveling with my young child on one.

The air on airplanes is very clean, because the ventilation systems have been upgraded and the air gets fully recycled every three minutes. I would embrace airline travel over driving. I’d rather be on an airplane where I don’t know the vaccination status next to me than in a coffee shop or restaurant.

The variants have become adept at airborne transmission, but there’s no signal that Covid is getting transmitted through surfaces, so don’t worry about sanitizing every inch of the airplane seat.

Dr. Patel: The guidance is pretty simple. Get and stay up-to-date on vaccinations, including Covid boosters and flu shots. After that, remember that Covid is airborne, so the quality of your mask matters. Travel in medical grade masks if you can find them (N95, KN-95, or KN-94).

Q: What’s the latest someone can wait to get their vaccine or booster before traveling?

Dr. Gupta: You can get benefits from the vaccine even 48 hours after you get it, and that benefit grows and you’re fully boosted two weeks out. Get the shot.

Q: Flu cases were way down last year. Is the flu shot still important this year? And is it OK to give my child both shots at once?

Dr. Offit: We’re seeing far higher flu numbers in our hospital than last year. Get your kids vaccinated for flu as well.

Dr. Gupta: It’s definitely OK to give both shots at once. There’s no evidence to suggest the shots interact with one another in the body. Completely safe.

Q: I have kids younger than 5 who can’t get the vaccine yet. What’s your advice for bringing them to family parties or big dinners this holiday season?

Dr. Patel: The best protection for any gathering with children who are not vaccinated is making sure that everyone else is vaccinated AND does not have any symptoms related to Covid-19. Another tip at a dinner if possible is to ask all adults and children over the age of 2 to perform a rapid test prior to the gathering; this isn't fool proof, but helps to ensure that everyone is as safe as possible.

Dr. Offit: If children are around a lot of people whose vaccination status is unknown, keep wearing masks.

Q: I have a few people I’m likely to see over the holidays who aren’t vaccinated. Would you recommend I skip that part of the get-together?

Dr. Gupta: If that person was tested and asymptomatic, the risk is far greater to them than to you. Might you test positive? Yes. But fundamentally, you’ll likely be fine, unless you’re high-risk. But remember that if you test positive, you’ll have to quarantine for 10 days, which may be challenging if you’re far from home.

Dr. Offit: Fear the unvaccinated. I would recommend not spending time with unvaccinated friends and relatives. It’s too bad. It’s become a cultural thing.

Dr. Patel: Here’s a thought exercise that may help you answer this: If you choose not to see your loved ones because they are not vaccinated, will you only agree to see them once they are vaccinated?

Q: My older family members are fully vaccinated and boosted. Is it OK to bring my young children to see older family members? They’re fully vaccinated and boosted.

Dr. Gupta: Absolutely. If you trust a group of people to get vaxxed and boosted, and that’s who you’re convening with, feel free to do that. Also recognize there’s a chance that you could test positive for Covid, which in all likelihood is also OK. That should not pre-empt you from normal activities anymore because we have great controls, like vaccines.

Dr. Offit: If your kids are too young to get a vaccination, get them to wear a mask.

There’s a tremendous positive with living your life and visiting grandma and grandpa that got overlooked early on. And that still counts.

Q: I decided that it was worth the risk to travel with my kids internationally. What guidance can you give me about the experience on the ground in areas where the Omicron variant has really taken hold?

Dr. Gupta: Omicron has been no different than other variants, including Delta. For those who are fully vaccinated (which we’re starting to define as three shots), you’ll likely be OK. Those individuals are fine.

Dr. Patel: It varies. Some countries are incredibly strict about masks and testing requirements, as well as demonstrating proof of vaccination to enter some locations. Be prepared, and be flexible/patient with yourself and others.

Q: Can I be honest? I’m tired of being tired. I’m scared I’ll do all the right things and my kid will get Covid anyway.

Dr. Gupta: There is no such thing as zero risk, and that’s OK. I’d recommend a paradigm shift for parents to reorient themselves to managing the risk, not to stress out trying to eliminate it.

Dr. Offit: Living with Covid risk is a game of Russian roulette, where there are 100,000 empty chambers, but you are playing that game. It’s always a matter of relative risk.

Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and “Way Too Early." She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.