Perhaps you’re planning a late summer getaway to wine country. Maybe your loved ones are heading off to college for a study abroad program. Or possibly your boss decided it’s time to restart domestic, even international, business travel again. No matter what the reason, people have been traveling at steadily increasing volumes during the late spring and summer, based on TSA’s airport screening data. But the Delta variant may be changing that trend.
The Delta variant of coronavirus is making news headlines, and, unfortunately, some of the reporting is uneven and unnecessarily contributing to traveler confusion about whether they should take trips and, if they do, how to minimize risk and travel safely.
The Delta variant is twice as contagious as previous strains of the disease. But the available scientific data indicate COVID-19 vaccinated people and those who have been infected and subsequently recovered are far less likely to catch coronavirus in any form, including Delta.
The most recent data indicate that all western approved vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca – are highly effective at protecting against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, including the Delta variant.
The Pfizer vaccine was 92 percent effective at fighting the Delta variant, but the vaccine’s effectiveness fell to 90 percent, 85 percent and 78 percent after 30, 60 and 90 days, respectively, according to a recent study. In another study, researchers found the effectiveness of Moderna’s vaccine against infection from the Delta variant was 76 percent.
“People who have received the J&J vaccine should be confident they have a high level of protection against hospitalization and severe disease,” says Erika Reategui Schwarz, MD, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of medicine and hospital medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and an investigator on the initial J&J clinical trial.
Researchers are sorting out whether the Delta strain produces more severe illness in people compared to the original virus. “Many scientists say they don’t know yet. Early information about the severity of Delta included a study from Scotland that showed the Delta variant was about twice as likely as Alpha to result in hospitalization in unvaccinated individuals, but other data has shown no significant difference,” according to a report by Yale Medicine.
Routine pandemic precautions, like masking, social distancing and being outside, are still wise measures to follow when you’re traveling. “We’re actually telling people a lot of the same things we’ve always told them, it’s just that now they’re a bit more willing to listen,” said Catherine Shearer, owner of H+I Adventures and Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner.
To minimize contracting or spreading the virus during air travel, people should continue to mask and physically distance in airport terminals, screening and security areas, at the gates and on the jetway.
Inflight is different. Passengers cannot socially distance on board a jet, but masking is still required. Travelers should know that the onboard jet air filtration is fast and effective against bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19.
A study revealed the chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 while wearing a mask and flying on a modern, commercial airline is about the same as being struck by lightning: about one chance in half a million. Air filtration and recycling on a jet are fast and effective due to the use of powerful air circulation fans and high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters.
“The HEPA filters are 99.9% effective or greater in removing particulate contaminants, including viruses like COVID-19, and bacteria and fungi from recirculated air. The air flows from the ceiling to the floor and creates completely new air in the cabin every six minutes,” said Denise Stecconi, a commercial pilot who flies Boeing 737s for Alaska Airlines.
When it comes to destinations, domestic or international, travelers should look at hotspot trend data to identify places to avoid, but they should also be aware that viruses mutate.
“Travelers must remember that coronavirus has a vote since new mutations are possible. Hedge your destination bets by picking outdoor getaway spots where COVID-19 and Delta variant trends matter less, like remote camping, horseback riding, ranch or seashore vacations and hiking. Go where you can be outside and away from crowds,” said Kent Webber, senior manager, Intelligence Services at Global Rescue and a former senior intelligence operations officer in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence at the Pentagon.
Medical experts, like Amber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees Delta variant infection rates are getting worse, but she adds that “in evaluating now whether to go on trips, if individuals are vaccinated, risk does remain low if you take appropriate precautions. I think it still is okay to consider taking those trips.”
Rising vaccination rates, dwindling vaccine-hesitancy, increasing recovery from infections, FDA vaccine approvals and emerging pharmaceutical development of inoculations for children are all contributing to traveler enthusiasm about the return of travel. But that alone won’t be enough for the global travel and tourism industry to recover from the economic damage caused by the pandemic, especially as the Delta variant sparks disruption and confusion.
International governments must match, even exceed, traveler enthusiasm with institutional commitments to prevent another disease from causing so much damage. Business and government leaders must commit to advancing policies for new technology capable of disease detection.
Dedicating global resources to prevent the spread of deadly diseases requires international cooperation. Travelers and travel industry leaders can support the creation of a dedicated international task force to track disease outbreaks. It’s a foundational element to include as part of the travel industry’s ability to minimize the impact of and recovery from future pandemics.
Article written by Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue. He serves on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Commerce and is a Global Member of the World Travel and Tourism Council.