The New York Times

How Epidemiologists Are Planning to Vacation With Their Unvaccinated Kids

Families are facing a dilemma this year: They are itching to take a summer vacation, but their kids are not vaccinated. What to do? The mental gymnastics involved in answering this question are exhausting. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times Our decision-making is clouded by unanswered questions about immunity, virus mutations and what case numbers will look like in the summer. The most conservative approach would be to wait a while longer and see how things shake out. But people are burned out from lockdowns, and vacation venues are selling out. At this point, all we really want to know is: What can we do this summer? So we asked epidemiologists and other public health experts — a pretty cautious group — what they are planning for their own summer vacations. Here are a few takeaways. First, figure out what feels safe. Does the thought of getting on a plane make you feel queasy? Or are you itching to be 35,000 feet in the air? Each family must figure out its own appetite for risk, the experts said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser for COVID-19, said in an interview Monday that he is hoping to have “a little family reunion” in the summer with his adult daughters, after everyone gets vaccinated, “if things calm down the way I think they will.” “One of them I haven’t seen in over a year. The others I haven’t seen in almost a year. I think that’s going to be my big plan in July,” Fauci said. Even among experts, there is some uncertainty about the summer. Jennifer Nuzzo, lead epidemiologist for the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, is planning to travel domestically this year with her family — though they have held off on picking a spot as they gather information on what locales might pose more or less danger of exposure. In her “exposure budget” she said she was prioritizing risks that had a clear benefit to the health and development of her kids, who are 4 and 7, such as visits with extended family. The health of your family members is also a big consideration. “We are very conservative as far as our risk level,” said Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health in Ohio, who will be vacationing with younger relatives who are not yet eligible for vaccination and have health conditions. It is not clear why some kids get very sick from COVID and others do not, she said, and the possibility of a COVID infection is “not something that I want to deal with just because we tried to go and have some fun.” After weighing the options, she and her family decided to drive out of state and stay at a hotel near a beach that will not be packed with visitors. If you are still trying to figure out what kinds of risks you are willing to take, an online risk calculator can help. Is it safe to travel? Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has spent the better part of a year discouraging nonessential travel to prevent further virus transmission, recently the agency announced that fully vaccinated people can now travel safely on mass transportation, including planes, in the United States. But at a White House news conference announcing the new guidance, CDC officials hedged, saying they would prefer that people avoid travel because of the rising number of coronavirus cases, even though domestic travel is considered “low risk” for those who are fully vaccinated. Most of the experts we spoke with plan to drive to their destinations, in part because their children are not vaccinated. Sadie Costello, an occupational and environmental epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, has two road trips planned: a camping trip with friends where the adults are vaccinated and the kids are not, and a family trip to a rental vacation house with a private pool. “It’s a balance between COVID safety and mental health,” said Costello, who has two children, ages 10 and 14. If your family does decide to fly, take precautions to lower the risk of getting infected. While traveling, make sure that everyone in your group 2 and older wears a mask, stay 6 feet away from people outside your household, avoid crowds and wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer. The CDC recommends that all unvaccinated people get a COVID test one to three days before any trip and again three to five days after it is over. They should also self-quarantine for seven days after a trip if they get tested and for 10 days if they do not get tested, the agency said. Shorter flights where passengers remove their masks less often for snacks or drinks are most likely safer, the experts said. “The few instances of documented transmission on airplanes were long flights,” said Dr. Arthur L. Reingold, head of the epidemiology division at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. The experts we spoke with are not planning to travel abroad, in part because cases continue to surge in many part of the world and because there are strict protocols for reentering the United States. Where should you stay? You don’t necessarily need to sequester in your hometown, go camping or rent a house with a private pool like you might have done last year — although those are all fine, lower-risk options. Hotels or resorts can be safe for families, too, provided that you ask yourself a crucial question: Can you take the right precautions and keep distance between your family and other people while you are there? Think about the various spots within a hotel or its surroundings where you or your family would be most likely to get infected, suggested Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It might be in a crowded elevator, an indoor restaurant or the lobby. If you are traveling with people who are not fully vaccinated, try to avoid these areas as much as possible, he said. Whitney R. Robinson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is hoping to vacation in South Carolina this summer with relatives she has not seen for more than a year — provided that case numbers are low. She plans to do mostly outdoor activities during the trip and said she and her kids, who are 2 and 6, will avoid indoor dining or long, lingering meals. But Robinson has already started imagining other potential scenarios: If it rains, for example, they can gather indoors but will open all the windows. When indoors, “I’ll probably try to wear masks and have my kids wear masks,” she said. If you’re staying at a resort and plan to use a kids club that provides child care and organized activities, be sure to ask a lot of questions beforehand, the experts advised. Ideally, you would want the kids to wear masks, play in small groups at least 6 feet apart from one another and spend most of the time outdoors. “It’s similar to a school environment — but with the big difference that it’s bringing together people from totally different networks from all around the world,” Robinson said. “Personally, it’d be a ‘no’ from me.” Do you need masks while vacationing outdoors? If you are outdoors in a crowded place where your family cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from people outside your household, wearing a mask is still a good idea for your kids and yourself, too, even if you are fully vaccinated. But if you are outdoors and can maintain distance from other people, the risk of infection is very low if you choose not to wear a mask outdoors, regardless of whether you are vaccinated or not, the experts said. “If you’re more than 6 feet from somebody outdoors, I don’t think your mask is going to make that much of a marginal difference at that point, because the risk is already so low,” Karan said. “The pool is a question mark,” Smith said, adding that most of her vacation will be spent at the beach. “If it’s very crowded, we won’t be going into it.” What if you need to change your mind? All the experts we spoke with said you should be prepared to pivot if infections are on the rise. “Surges may result in more restrictions,” which could be local or more widespread and could affect mass transit, said Karen Edwards, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, Irvine. “If you are set on travel that would include flying to specific destinations, including international destinations, then I would be prepared to change those plans and have a backup that would still give you and your family a much-needed break and change of scenery,” she added. Nuzzo agreed that everyone should be aware of the possibility of a fourth surge, but she remained optimistic. “My mental picture of the summer is that we’re going to be in a much better place than we are now,” she said. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company