The CDC still advises against nonessential travel, but many infectious disease experts say a trip to the beach or a family vacation can be done pretty safely if you do it right.



Spring break is supposed to be fun, but this year it's also complicated. Yes, the pace of COVID-19 vaccine is picking up, but the CDC is still discouraging nonessential travel. You might not know it, though, looking at the nation's airports this weekend. About 1.3 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints Friday. That's the busiest day for air travel since a year ago. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with the very latest. Allison, let's start with the vaccinations. How much progress has there been?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Sure. About 70 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of vaccine. And, A., if you look at the 65-and-up population, it's nearly two-thirds. So, you know, more vaccinations, warmer weather coming - people are on the go. But it is worth noting there are still thousands of new coronavirus cases a day, as more contagious variants circulate, and many unvaccinated people are still at risk of infection.

MARTINEZ: I'd like to go, too, but I don't.

AUBREY: Right.

MARTINEZ: No, so what precautions is the CDC recommending people take?

AUBREY: The CDC recently changed its guidelines to greenlight small gatherings between people who have been vaccinated and those who have not. So many older adults who were first in line for vaccination feel the freedom now to visit children and grandchildren. This is easier to do if you live in the same town, right?


AUBREY: But if you got to travel, despite the CDC guidance to avoid nonessential travel, several infectious disease experts tell me they're OK with this if people are careful. Here is Dr. Emily Landon. She's an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago.

EMILY LANDON: I think it is time for people to begin, especially older adults who haven't seen family in such a long time - I think that actually counts as essential travel at this point from a mental health standpoint. And so I would say that it's totally fine for vaccinated older adults to very carefully take trips in order to see family.

AUBREY: And what she means by carefully, A., is that even if you're fully vaccinated, you continue to wear a mask, you continue to avoid crowds as much as possible and keep your hands clean. So bring that sanitizer.

MARTINEZ: If everyone did that, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in right now. So remind us why vaccinated people need to continue to take these precautions. I mean, are they protected, technically, against COVID-19?

AUBREY: Yes, the vaccines are very effective at preventing serious illness, but the question that is not completely answered is whether vaccinated people could become infected and perhaps spread it. The risk appears to be quite low, but that's why people need to continue to take precautions. And so when it comes to travel, think about this - the flight or the train ride or the bus ride, it's only part of the risk. Here is infectious disease doctor Judy Guzman-Cottrill of Oregon Health and Science University.

JUDITH GUZMAN-COTTRILL: So when someone flies to another city to finally see their elderly vaccinated parents, their arrival can also turn into a reason for a family gathering. And when there is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated members of that family, then they should have their meals and be gathering outdoors as much as possible because, still, the guidance is that outdoors is always safer than indoors.

AUBREY: And that's because there's airflow.


AUBREY: Fresh air is constantly moving.

MARTINEZ: Now, we're all wondering about family vacations. Since most young people are not yet vaccinated, is it safe to take a trip with the kids?

AUBREY: You know, if you set expectations so that the kids realize COVID precautions are still in place, Guzman-Cottrill says it's a reasonable decision. She says she's planning a road trip by car with her husband and two kids coming up.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: We're going to drive. We're going to stay in a condo. We'll either cook on our own or get carryout out for every meal. And I feel like it's a safe plan, including with my two unvaccinated children.

AUBREY: So a key principle here is, A., stick with the people in your own household, mask up when you're out, and avoid crowds. So the quiet campground or beach might be safer than a packed resort.

MARTINEZ: All right, what about groups of friends who are eager to get away?

AUBREY: You know, the same principles apply here. And it's not so much the decision to travel, A., as it is the choices you make while you travel that determine the risk. I spoke to Dr. Aaron Carroll at Indiana University about this.

AARON CARROLL: Safety is not a binary thing where, you know, something is either 100% safe or 100% unsafe. You can do things more safely or less safely. If you are driving with, you know, people that you're already living with to another location where you're still just being with them, perhaps spending a lot of time outside, that sounds reasonably safe.

AUBREY: On the other hand, not a good idea to go, say, with a big group to a destination filled with crowded bars. Many universities have canceled the traditional weeklong spring break to help prevent this.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, spring break and good choices don't always go hand in hand.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTINEZ: But there are already numerous reports of crowded beaches in Florida and in Texas. So how are officials there responding?

AUBREY: You know, officials in Daytona Beach, in Miami Beach, encourage social distancing and masking. But this is really hard to enforce, and we saw some of this over the weekend. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says already too many people are coming.


DAN GELBER: If you're coming here to do anything and you think this is an anything-goes place, just don't come here. Please go somewhere else. And if you're going to come here, enjoy our beaches and dine outdoors and wear the mask and be smart. We all want to be safer.

AUBREY: So in other words, he's sort of begging people to be on their best behavior.

MARTINEZ: So what are they afraid of, then? That this kind of travel could cause another surge?

AUBREY: You know, that's right. I mean, there has been a plateau in the decline of new cases after weeks of very precipitous drops. And public health experts are saying, look; it is our behavior in these coming weeks that will determine the outcome here. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS yesterday the variants that are circulating do pose a challenge, but he said he's optimistic.


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think the combination of a lot of prior infection and the fact that we're vaccinating aggressively now, as we get into April, the situation around the country is going to look markedly better. But there will be pockets of outbreaks, and there will be pockets where some of these variants become more prevalent.

AUBREY: And that's why this is not the time to let our guards down. You know, when I speak to infectious disease experts, what I hear again and again and again is, look; there is light at the end of the tunnel, right?


AUBREY: We are so close. But for now, we all need to do our part, and so this means continuing to do the things that we've been hearing for so long now - continuing to mask, even if you are vaccinated, you know, continuing to avoid crowds and continuing to, you know, practice good hand hygiene.

MARTINEZ: So close. We're almost there. That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Yeah, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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