Packing for a trip these days is very different than it was a few years ago. Now, in addition to your passport, medication and enough underwear, you’ll also want to throw in some at-home COVID tests in your luggage. At least that’s what medical experts are recommending as people prepare for the busiest summer travel season since the global pandemic hit two years ago.
“The biggest key is prevention and protection,” warns Dr. Michelle Prickett, associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and physician at Northwestern Medicine. “If you are not vaccinated, now is the time. Anyone over 50 or anyone with chronic conditions should also have their second booster. Think about where you are going and how you can limit interaction with others to have a safe trip.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should not travel if you have symptoms of COVID-19, test positive, or are awaiting test results. If you test positive, you are not supposed to travel “until 10 full days after your symptoms started or the date your positive test was taken if you had no symptoms”. Additionally, if your test comes back positive while you’re at your destination, “you’ll need to self-isolate and postpone your return until it’s safe to travel.” Additionally, your travel companions may also need to self-quarantine.
But people aren’t exactly following the rules, whether because of the costs of extending their hotel stay and/or rescheduling flights or being unable to miss work, and travel anyway.
What should you know before you go? We spoke to a few experts to find out.
While you’re in the booking stages of your trip, check with your airline and accommodation to find out their COVID policies and what would happen if you had to cancel your trip for health reasons. As an extra precaution, consider purchasing travel insurance.
As your group plans your trip itinerary, you’ll also want to have a candid discussion to make sure you’re all on the same page with safety precautions, like being up to date with vaccinations, limiting high-risk activities . in the days leading up to the trip and wear masks during the trip.
“It’s about a group of people agreeing to be careful because you share the risk when you’re with other people. It’s about shared risk and shared responsibility,” notes Dr Preeti Malani, professor of medicine at the University of Michigan and infectious disease specialist.”And I think most people are really thoughtful about this. They want to come together and keep their families safe.”
Along with extra tests, masks and a thermometer, Malani recommends keeping an easily accessible list of contact information for your healthcare providers and an up-to-date list of your current medications due to potential drug interactions.
“If you have high-risk medical conditions, it’s also important to be careful about the type of travel you’re doing,” she cautions. “You don’t want to be too far or too remote and you’ll want to know in advance what hospitals are in your area because there are a lot of parts of the country where there isn’t critical care.”
You will also want to discuss a contingency plan for what happens if someone in your group contracts the virus while traveling and research health facilities, emergency care and pharmacies, at your destination. in case you need treatment.
When traveling, doctors recommend that you distance yourself from society as much as possible and continue to wear high-quality masks, such as an N95 or KN95, to avoid infection.
“It’s about mitigating risk, not eliminating it. There is no one thing that covers all risks,” says Malani. “But when you layer those things like vaccination, testing and thinking about mask-wearing, it can help reduce risk.”
But if you start experiencing symptoms of COVID, you’ll want to get a COVID test as soon as possible. Timing is key when it comes to getting proper treatment, if needed, experts say.
“The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can potentially get treatments and consider the options available at your destination,” says Prickett. “So have a high level of suspicion, wear your mask, get tested, then retest if symptoms persist.”
If you happen to contract COVID while travelling, isolate yourself from the rest of your group as soon as possible and try to extend your stay.
“There is the ideal and there is the reality. Ideally, having a separate bedroom, a separate bathroom and [if you] can potentially extend your stay. Anyone exposed should monitor themselves for symptoms, test themselves and wear a mask around other people given an increased risk of infection,” says Malani. “That said, some people may not be able to do that.”
If you are unable to book a private room, Malani recommends wearing masks in the room for infected and uninfected people.
“If a close family contact has COVID, it will be difficult to avoid the spread, especially if you’re sharing a hotel room — it just depends on other people’s susceptibility to infection,” she says. “The best thing is to isolate anyone who develops even mild symptoms and put on masks.”
If your child gets sick while traveling, the same rules apply: test, try to isolate, limit exposure. If the child is old enough to wear a mask, they must do so and the caregiver must wear one as well.
The highest risk of infection is during those first five days, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be diligent afterwards.
“After those first five days you can start doing things, but the masking has to be really, really tight. You have to be very strict about it,” says Dr. Mark Loafman, a family physician at Cook County Health in Chicago who specializes in infectious disease outbreaks, public health, health care research and health policy. . If it’s a three-hour flight, don’t take the mask off. Even if it attracts a few glances at the airport.
“We just have to be vigilant and believe we’re doing the right thing and not let peer pressure or social pressure stop us from doing the right thing. It’s really not that big of a burden to wear a mask,” Loafman continues. “I’m just encouraging people to keep following the advice and be a role model and do it right. COVID is going to be with us for a while and it’s just going to be a way forward.
Malani agrees and wants to make sure people can come together and travel safely.
“After a few years of not being able to do the things that are really important to us, now is a good time to try and do it. With a little planning and thought from everyone involved, you can do it by safely,” she says. “There won’t be a magic moment in the coming months when the risk will be completely gone. And it’s going to be higher and lower sometimes, but there’s no better time than now to do the things that are important to us.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com