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How to stay safe from COVID, flu while traveling for the holidays

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(NEW YORK) — Americans are taking to the roads and to the skies as they travel to see family and friends for the holidays.

While the holidays are being celebrated semi-normally for the first time in more than two years, the threat of multiple respiratory viruses lingers.

Although cases of the flu and RSV are declining in some areas, they are still higher at this point in the year than in seasons past, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, weekly COVID-19 cases have increased over the last four weeks from 307,201 to 455,466, CDC data shows.

While heading to your destination, experts recommend masking and practicing good hand hygiene to avoid getting infected — or passing infection to others — while traveling.

“The good news is that we are now all educated about how to protect ourselves against COVID and just sort of pulling out that COVID toolbox,” Dr. Sandra Nelson, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “Again, we can apply the lessons that we learned on how to prevent infections for the other respiratory viruses that are circulating as well.”

Stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters

Experts said the most important thing you can do to keep yourself safe, whether traveling by car, train or plane, is to make sure you’re up to date on your vaccinations and boosters.

For COVID-19, this includes the primary vaccine series and the updated bivalent booster than specifically targets omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

However, only 14.1% of Americans aged 5 and older have received the booster despite a recent study from the CDC that shows the booster was 80% effective at preventing seniors from being hospitalized and provided benefits for adults of all ages.

For the flu, this means getting the annual flu shot. As of Dec. 11 — the latest date for which CDC data is available — only 46.7% of Americans adults say they have received the vaccine.

According to the CDC, the flu shot reduces the risk of illness by 40% to 60%. Experts say the flu vaccine this year matches well to currently circulating strains.

“It’s important for an individual to get vaccinated, especially if they have high-risk conditions, they are immunocompromised, elderly and such that they should get vaccinated,” Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases specialist at the Mayo Clinic, told ABC News. “We know those vaccinations do decrease the [risk of] severe disease. They may not completely prevent you from having something, but at least they will prevent that severity.”

Consider wearing a mask

While traveling in an airplane or on a train, public health experts recommended Americans wear masks and only remove them while eating or drinking.

“Really, the highest risk time on an airplane is in getting on and off the plane before and after the ventilation systems on the airplane are up and running,” Nelson said. “So during boarding and disembarking the airplane, that is the highest risk time.”

She continued, “But there remain risks even when the flight is, is airborne. Even with the good ventilation systems, there’s still the potential for transmission from people who are sitting near us.”

When it comes to wearing a mask, doctors suggest wearing a well-fitting high-quality mask such as a KN95 or an N95 mask over a surgical mask or a cloth mask.

Practice good hand hygiene

Making sure you wash or sanitize your hands after touching contact surfaces such as an airplane bathroom door or tray table is one of the best ways to prevent infection, the experts said.

Even though COVID-19 is not primarily spread by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces, cold, flu and other viruses can live on surfaces from several hours to several days.

“Hand hygiene has never been more important with all these viruses that are transmitted through droplets,” Dr. Justin Fiala, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine, told ABC News. “So, someone sneezes, sneezes on their hand, wipes their nose and then turns the doorknob or handle, any of those things then can allow the virus to persist.”

“Nothing wrong with being a little bit more judicious getting that Purell or whatever the hand sanitizer is at the airport, at the Amtrak station, wherever people are this holiday season,” he added.

Open windows

If traveling by car, and if the weather isn’t too cold, the doctors recommended opening the windows for ventilation.

Ventilating the car and filtering air flow can help reduce virus particles and lower the risk of spread, according to the CDC.

“If you’re in like a warmer climate, it really is all about ventilation,” Fiala said. “And so, if you can get whatever the air is cycling through relatively frequently, then that conceivably will lower your risk.”

Stay home if you feel sick

If you develop cold or flu-like symptoms and it’s possible to delay or cancel travel plans, the experts recommended doing just that.

“This just comes down to if you’re feeling lousy enough where you’re wondering what to do, whether to go or not to a family gathering, usually I tell patients that is a good litmus test to say, ‘Oh, you know, what? You’re probably feeling bad enough, where this is not a good idea,'” Fiala said.

Additionally, people should also reconsider venturing out when sick if they’ll be visiting someone who is at high risk for severe illness such as those who are elderly or have weakened immune systems.

If you can’t get out of your travel plans, the experts suggest following the earlier recommended steps.

“If you have to travel, then I would definitely recommend that you wear a mask so that others don’t get infected, and in and preferably in an N-95 mask but if you have an additional risk of severe disease, then you really have to be a little bit more critical of that decision,” Virk said.

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