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COVID-safe travel tips if you can't postpone your holiday plans


Concern over a new COVID surge fueled by the delta and omicron variants comes just as we head into one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. And for international travelers, that could mean a bewildering array of travel restrictions, testing options and quarantine requirements, all varying from country to country. We asked Kelley Lee about this. She's a professor of global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She also leads the Pandemics and Borders project, which researches cross-border measures to control pandemics. Lee says if you're traveling internationally, expect headaches.

KELLEY LEE: You know, it's going to be a lot of things to navigate and probably a lot more stress if you're going on holiday. And yeah, it's really a lot of new rules. They're really just trying to slow this variant down and...

PFEIFFER: Not prevent it, just slow it, basically.

LEE: Absolutely. It - I don't think we, at this point, can prevent it. It's surging around the world. And it's a matter of slowing it down so it doesn't hit all at once. And it's trying to get people boosted in a lot of countries as quickly as possible.

PFEIFFER: Well, that's interesting because some people have been frustrated by restrictions that prevent people from a certain country from coming. Yet say you're an American returning from Africa. You're allowed into the U.S., even if the African citizen is not.

LEE: That's right. You - I mean, you make a really good point. And those targeted measures actually were never going to be very effective, because by the time we heard about omicron, it been circulating for a number of weeks, and some say even a couple of months. So it was really almost performative. You know, you - it looked like the government had to do something. And it sort of targeted where they think the omicron variant was coming from. But actually, it clearly wasn't just coming from southern Africa.

And so we have this - you know, a situation where, well, if governments are not going to restrict everyone or at least test and quarantine everyone, you know, how much can we slow this variant down? And this is a big debate in our research because different countries have approached this challenge in different ways. So it was no coincidence that Israel and Hong Kong identified omicron very quickly. They found it in travelers who were quarantining. And so the virus got in, of course, but they didn't allow it to spread into the wider population. They kept them in quarantine.

And that is the difference, is that we use testing to identify infected travelers. But the quarantine has to go hand in hand. You know, you can't pick up everyone. And then if you test but don't quarantine, then you're not actually preventing the variant from spreading into wide - the wider community. And so the question is, you know, why wasn't the government doing more testing and more quarantining early on? And we could ask that of a lot of governments.

PFEIFFER: Many people who have travel plans are worried about whether they should go at all on their trips. Do you think there's a safe way to travel during the pandemic?

LEE: Well, I would say, first of all, if you can, avoid traveling at this time. Whether delay it or postpone it, I would do so. But if you do find yourself having to travel for whatever reason, there are ways to reduce your risk. Upgrade your masks that you're wearing. So if you're wearing the cloth masks, it's good to get the surgical mask but, really, the N95. Those respirator masks are the ones to wear, if you can. I know that everybody can't. But do wear those.

Try not to linger in places like crowded airports and cafes and so on. You know, just keep moving. Remain in ventilated spots - all the things that we know about. And then when you get to your destination, probably best not to go to places where you know there may be unvaccinated people, where there are large crowds, where there's not mask-wearing. So there are ways to travel, for sure. But it's just really - no travel at this time is risk-free. And I think that's what people have to remind themselves.

PFEIFFER: That's Kelley Lee, a professor of global health governance at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Thank you very much for the information and advice.

LEE: Oh, you're most welcome, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.