Home for the holidays
Experts advise staying home, but if you choose to travel, follow these tips
In a pandemic where wishing someone health and safety in their travels during the holiday season takes on a heavier feeling, doctors and medical experts strongly advise against travel as the COVID-19 virus continues to barrel through communities with reckless, record-breaking abandon.
Dr. Megan Srinivas, a Fort Dodge infectious diseases specialist, boiled her holiday travel advice down for simplicity: “Don’t do it.”
“Skipping one year of holiday (gatherings) to protect your loved ones means having everyone at the table for the next 10, 20, or 30 Thanksgivings,” Srinivas said.
Many doctors and health care facilities, already dealing with overwhelming caseloads, are expecting a large uptick in cases and hospitalizations following Thanksgiving and Christmas as families feel the pressure to continue family gathering traditions. Combined with an upcoming flu season, Srinivas said the worst six to eight weeks of the pandemic are starting to arrive.
“From the medical side, we’re all expecting that,” Srinivas said. “We hope people take this (advice) to heart and do the right thing to protect themselves, their family and their community.”
If staying in a hotel or other rental, call ahead and ask about their sanitation procedures — whether they’re limiting hotel capacity or spacing out stays and whether they’re requiring masks in common areas to reduce risks. Some are taking every precaution, others aren’t.
If hosting or traveling, consider the size of your gathering. Try to limit it only to immediate family.
Webster County Public Health advises that having a gathering of people from different locations increases risk significantly.
“I would rather invite five people who I know are completely quarantining than to invite two people who I know have been exposed to the world and haven’t been taking it as seriously,” Srinivas told the American Medical Association in a recent article. “That’s a much higher risk situation.”
At the gathering, wear a mask when not eating and stay at least six feet away from those who don’t live in your household whenever possible. Sanitize commonly touched surfaces and be mindful of ways the virus can spread, including utensils used to serve food and other items that will be touched by more than one person. Disposable utensils and plates might help minimize risk from serving food.
But at the dinner table where a family is enjoying themselves, know that six feet of distance may not be enough to avoid the droplets being expelled by others in poorly ventilated indoor areas.
“Six feet distance is (generally speaking) a good tip, but our ventilation in these small indoor spaces is not significant enough to prevent droplet spread amongst a whole room,” Srinivas said.
That’s especially true for those who are talking loudly, singing or laughing, all of which make potentially virus-laden particles travel much farther. Laughing, for example, can send droplets anywhere from 20 to 40 feet. A forceful sneeze will send those particles up to 100 feet.
If you’re meeting in an area with warm weather, take advantage of it by eating outside for extra risk reduction provided by the natural ventilation.
IF YOU DRIVE…
Opt for driving whenever possible, medical experts advise. Traveling with members of your own household in a private space not shared with others will significantly reduce exposure to members of the public in planes, buses or trains. Be careful around gas stations and food stops by wearing a mask and staying distanced from others, and bring plenty of hand sanitizer.
Before you go, prepare your vehicle.
“Make sure all the tires are filled up, check the oil levels and antifreeze at least, and go from there,” said Doyle Anderson, owner of Anderson Station in Fort Dodge.
But the real work in safety is done on the road, said Trooper Paul Gardner of the Iowa State Patrol.
“Drivers out during this time should pay attention to their surroundings,” he said, as an Iowa epidemic of excessive speeding coincides with the pandemic. “Pay attention to what’s coming at (you), coming up behind (you) and passing (you). That’s going to be the key factor in making sure you get there safe.”
In addition to the obvious — wearing your seat belt, not speeding, not using your cell phone while driving and not driving after drinking — keeping distractions to a minimum and keeping the driver’s eyes on the road is the simple advice that will take you miles.
“Speed is our main contributing factor in most crashes,” Gardner said.
Thanks to a 76% increase in speeding more than 25 mph over the limit and a 108% increase of speeders going over 100 mph, fatalities from accidents remain steady this year. The fastest speed clocked so far this year was 155 mph.
The ISP will have a boosted presence on the road next week, hoping the visibility helps deter some speeders. Gardner said that some drivers speed on secondary roads due to the lack of traffic.
“They don’t think there’s a lot of troopers out, so they put down the hammer and go,” he said.
IF YOU FLY…
This year, the Fort Dodge Regional Airport doesn’t quite know what to expect for holiday travel, said Rhonda Chambers, director of aviation.
The number of passengers that flew through Fort Dodge is down 54% this year, from January to October, compared to 2019.
“The aviation industry has been hit hard,” she said.
But none of the Thanksgiving week flights have been canceled yet. Five roundtrip flights go through the airport every weekday, with two departures and arrivals on Saturdays and Sundays.
The airport and its airline, Air Choice One, continue to follow every safety precaution as stringently as possible. Masks are required at all points during travel, and passengers on flights are seated as far apart as possible.
Though required mask wearing on nearly every flight and in nearly every airport does offer substantial help, Srinivas said it’s not quite the protection you’d hope for when crammed with many people into a relatively small space. That’s not even taking into account the wait time as flyers traverse through airports.
As always, physically distance from others you aren’t traveling with whenever possible by at least six feet, if not more. One appeal to pandemic travel on Air Choice One’s small planes, which seat eight passengers, is that there is only one seat on each side of the aisle in every row.
“There’s a lot fewer people to be exposed to,” Chambers said.
But even with reduced traffic, Chambers advises flyers to give themselves enough time by arriving an hour before their flight’s scheduled departure. There also may be fewer TSA agents at the security check point to process passengers.