Airports are notorious for being germ incubators and during a pandemic, this risk rises. As people become vaccinated, widespread travel will become feasible again. But medical experts say there are ways to mitigate the risks while traveling while waiting for the country to reach herd immunity through widespread vaccination.
Although the availability of direct flights is improving, many travelers – especially those who live outside of major cities – have needed to book connecting flights to reach their final destinations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Flight layovers are a particularly vulnerable time but it is also a time when you can enact a lot personal safety measures to reduce your risk of contracting disease,” says Dr. Alaina Brinley Rajagopal, a Southern California-based emergency medicine physician, virologist and host of the “Emergency Docs” podcast.
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Up your mask game
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Rajagopal says wearing a mask and staying at least 6 feet away from other people are the two most important things that you can do to reduce risk of contracting COVID-19 – and wearing an N-95 mask will reduce that risk even further.
“Wearing an N-95 mask that fits properly with a face shield considerably reduces your risk,” she continues. “An N-95 with a face shield is what we wear in the hospital when we need to be in very close contact with patients for procedures so we know the combination works effectively.”
Fit is extremely important for the effectiveness of an N-95, she notes. “You want to make sure that when you are wearing an N-95 and you exhale that no air is escaping around your nose, chin, cheeks, or eyes. An N-95 is only effective if there is a tight seal around the face,”Rajagopal says.
You may even want to double-mask, a tactic that was the subject of a recent CDC study.
“What they found was important and practical,” says Dr. Jan K Carney, a professor and associate dean for public health and health policy at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. She says researchers found that wearing a surgical mask (available in any pharmacy) blocked just over half of the particles (56%) from the simulated cough, than a cloth mask alone (51%).
“This is because masks often fit loosely,” she says. “When they tried a cloth mask over the medical procedure mask, the result was blocking over 85% of the particles. Or if they put a knot in the elastic of the medical procedure mask and carefully tucked in the sides, it blocked 77%.”
Even more encouraging: Researchers found that when subjects in close proximity both wore tightly fitting masks or double-masked, exposure was reduced by over 96%.
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Bring a hefty supply and be prepared to use them – a lot. “Bring sanitizing wipes with you to sanitize the surfaces you touch like the chair in the waiting area or the door to the restroom,” addsRajagopal. ‘Use these wipes on every surface before you touch it. Be sure that if you do accidentally touch a public surface, like the counter at a store, that you sanitize your hands with a waterless hand sanitizer or wash your hands immediately.”
Prior to the pandemic, an airport layover was an ideal time to grab a meal. This is still possible, but there are measures to implement. Eating can be difficult, especially if you are in a crowded airport.
“Try to find a place that is as far away from other people as possible before removing your mask to eat,” Rajagopal advises. Sanitize your hands before you eat, and she suggests bringing or purchasing foods that you don’t have to directly touch with your hands.
“For example, bring a granola bar or a sandwich that you can peel the wrapper away from as you eat,” she says. “Don’t bring foods like grapes or crackers that you have to touch with your bare fingers.”
Since many airport restaurants are closed, your best bet is to bring your own food and snacks. “If you do find an open restaurant, only eat there if you can maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others,” she says.
Other safety safeguards
Airports getting increasingly busy, so if you have a layover, look for a place that is less crowded to wait. “This might mean walking to another empty gate or larger airport space, like a large, open dining area,” suggests Carney. “If you need to walk around, that’s great too.”
When it comes time to use the restroom, Carney advises to try your best find the least-crowded one. “Keep 6 (feet of) distance while waiting and keep your mask on always,” she adds. “Wash your hands well with soap and water after.”
It can be also be an unnerving experience to wait for your connection. While waiting and distancing from others, try to distract yourself if you are stressed.
“Make sure you bring entertainment as the travel experience might be more anxiety-ridden and less comfortable than usual, given the fact that you will need to be wearing a mask,” says Dr. Kristin Hughes, a Chicago-based emergency physician and concierge health strategist.
New rules for boarding
When everyone begins to queue to board flights, again try to maintain as much distance as possible from others – at least 6 feet. “This may mean being the last in your group to board if it looks like the lines are starting to become crowds with people bunched together,” Dr. Rajagopal says.
When deplaning, again, maintain as much distance as possible between you and others. Allow those in the rows in front of you to deplane first so that you are walking past as few people as possible and can maintain distance from those in front of you, Dr. Rajagopal says.
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The bottom line
Dr. Carney says the best advice she can offer is to follow practical and science-based guidance: Wear a well-fitting mask, maybe two. Stay 6 feet apart. Avoid crowds. Keep your hands clean. Bring extra clean masks and hand sanitizer. “All these things, if you do them consistently, will help,” she says.
When you have an opportunity to get one of the FDA-authorized vaccines, take it. And follow the updates on the CDC’s website, which offers tips and information about new requirements.
“Don’t travel if you are sick or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19,” adds Carney.
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