Nation/World

Next COVID wave could be on a collision course with holiday travel

The summer of 2022 delivered on predictions it would be the season of “revenge travel,” with countries dropping coronavirus restrictions, passengers filling up long-haul flights and cruise ships, and demand soaring to levels not seen since 2019.

With the winter holidays approaching, that demand shows no signs of slowing down. The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.5 million passengers on Sunday, the highest daily figure since February 2020.

Still, the coronavirus has remained persistent, scuttling long-awaited plans, straining the travel industry’s workforce and making many summer trips turn hellish. Now, health experts are warning another winter surge could be ahead, with cases already rising in Europe and researchers keeping an eye on new strains of the virus.

The uptick comes as many Americans headed abroad will have less protection against the dominant omicron variant because vaccination rates for the new bivalent booster are lagging. As of early October, only about 4 percent of eligible Americans had received the new shot.

Here’s what to know if you plan to take a big trip this holiday season.

Where is the coronavirus surging around the world?

Signs point to a surge in Europe, which could foretell another winter wave in the United States. Cases rose by 104 percent in Portugal and 42 percent in Switzerland over the past week, while the virus has also surged in Germany, France, Italy and Austria, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.

The World Health Organization and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control warned Wednesday that the continent is likely entering a new COVID wave, which will coincide with a resurgence in the flu. In the ECDC’s latest weekly report, it noted “widespread increases were being observed in all indicators,” including cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the continent.

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COVID cases are also up in parts of Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, which have dropped most of their travel restrictions in recent months. In Singapore, which has seen a 44 percent increase in the average number of daily reported cases over the past week, the Ministry of Health said Saturday that an omicron subvariant known as XBB jumped from a 22 percent share of local cases to 54 percent over the course of a week.

When cases rise in Europe, it’s often “just a matter of weeks or months” until a surge follows in the United States, said Sanjana Ravi, a visiting assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We saw that with the delta variant. We saw that with the omicron variant,” Ravi said. “I think it’s safe to take precautions considering that we’re starting to see those numbers go up again in Europe now.”

How will the travel industry be affected?

A winter COVID wave will likely further strain airports and airlines that were plagued by labor shortages over the summer.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has announced that short staffing will force it to cap the number of passengers it can accommodate per day through at least March 2023. Dutch carrier KLM said it would have to reduce winter ticket sales at Schiphol by up to 22 percent because of the limits.

Last winter, U.S. airlines were forced to cancel thousands of flights around Christmas as the omicron variant sickened employees. The following week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halved the isolation period for asymptomatic coronavirus infections to five days, fearing a breakdown in essential services.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said this year’s bookings for holiday travel both within Europe and between the United States and Europe appear strong. Still, he noted, airline executives are concerned about a number of factors that could dampen travel, including a COVID surge and economic uncertainty.

“It’s as if right now, the travel industry is standing on a plank of wood that can support its weight . . . but which may splinter at any moment, possibly with little warning,” Harteveldt said in an email.

Should I reconsider my travel plans?

For young, healthy people who are fully vaccinated, including with the bivalent booster, most travel is safe, said Henry Wu, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University and director of the Emory TravelWell Center.

Elderly and immunocompromised individuals, however, might want to consider shifting their plans to avoid crowded areas and countries without high-quality medical care, even if they are vaccinated, Wu said. Ahead of winter, he recommended travelers look for locales with milder weather that allows them to eat outdoors.

“Early on in the COVID pandemic, a lot of the outbreaks did occur in ski lodges,” Wu said. “We had a lot of people in indoor spaces which probably seem cozy at that moment, but also probably had less than adequate ventilation.”

Ravi recommended postponing all nonessential travel to Europe, especially for those at high risk. If you must travel, she said, test before departing home, wear an N95 mask for the duration of transit, and consider bringing an air filter.

Lin H. Chen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital, recommended travelers consider travel medical insurance in case they have to cancel their trip at the last minute or get sick abroad.

Are COVID restrictions likely to return?

Over the past year, most of the world has relaxed its COVID restrictions for travelers, including vaccination, testing and mask mandates. Europe’s top destinations, such as Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, are fully open for tourism.

Mark Fischer, a regional medical director at International SOS, a health and security risk management firm, said he does not expect those restrictions to return, even with a winter surge.

“However, I think there’s a key focus on the overall health-care burden of the winter respiratory season,” with governments monitoring how COVID and the flu together affect hospital systems, Fischer said.

Wu said countries dropping their restrictions does not mean measures such as vaccination and wearing a high-quality mask are not “extremely useful” to individual travelers.

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“I would advise even travelers who are not concerned with severe illness, COVID or influenza can still make you miserable on your trip or your vacation,” he said.

Chen recommended immunocompromised travelers consider Evusheld, a preventive antibody treatment, before their trip to “supercharge their protection.”

Do I need a flu shot, too?

After coronavirus precautions kept the flu largely at bay the past two years, Wu said it is “quite possible” seasonal flu makes a major return this winter. He recommended all travelers get their annual flu shots before departing.

“I’ve always told travelers that probably the vaccine that’s most likely to save your life, pre-COVID, is the flu shot because the flu is just so common, historically, among travelers,” Wu said.

Ravi said it’s easy to get your flu shot and bivalent booster at the same time at your local pharmacy.

“Just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic at the moment, it doesn’t mean that other respiratory viruses aren’t still a threat,” Ravi said.

What if I test positive while abroad?

The most important thing travelers can do is build flexibility into their itinerary so they can avoid travel if they do test positive, Wu said.

“When you plan your trip, if potentially getting sick and having to stay somewhere an extra four or five or more days is a big problem, then probably that trip is either not the best trip to take, or it means the travelers really should take those precautions to prevent getting sick while traveling,” he said.

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Chen, the former president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, recommended travelers use ISTM’s online clinic directory to find reliable medical care if they get sick abroad. You should also speak to your doctor before traveling, especially if you think you might need antiviral treatment due to a preexisting condition, she said.

Where can I find more information?

The CDC provides recommendations for international travel, which urge travelers to be fully up to date on vaccinations, including boosters; wear masks on public transportation; and test before departure and after arrival.

The CDC recently ended its country-specific COVID-19 travel designations but still issues travel health notices for countries where travelers would be at extreme risk for contracting the coronavirus. The State Department also issues country-specific travel advisories, which factor in COVID-19 risk and other threats.

Travelers can also check databases such as Sherpa and Kayak for the latest information on coronavirus restrictions in foreign countries.

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