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Holiday travel during the coronavirus pandemic: How to stay healthy this Thanksgiving

How to celebrate holidays safely in 2020
How to celebrate holidays safely in 2020 01:59

The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen more than 6 million travelers this Thanksgiving week, the kickoff of the holiday season. That's a sharp drop from last year, when a record 26 million Americans packed their bags and traveled to see loved ones. 

But Americans who are traveling or hosting this year may be placing themselves and others at risk from the coronavirusUpdated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday urges Americans to reconsider any plans to travel, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country.

"There's nothing that is 100% protective unless you stay home alone, or with people who you've been in the same pod or protective bubble with," CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook said. "Once you go outside that protective pod, you're now increasing the risk."

Still, there are a few precautions travelers can take to protect themselves and the people they're going to see.

Last Flights From Europe Arrive Ahead Of Travel Ban Announced By President Trump
Passengers wearing masks at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Getty Images

"Appropriately worn masks reduce the spread of COVID-19—particularly given the evidence of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the virus," the CDC website reads.

Though they are not 100% effective, LaPook said masks are a "powerful tool" that have "been shown to help decrease the risk of not only infecting somebody else, but getting infected yourself."

"If you don't wear a mask, maybe you're gonna be OK, maybe you'll even be infected and not have symptoms, but you could pass it on to somebody who's vulnerable, and they could get very sick or even die," he said.

Masks should be worn at any travel hubs and while on any public transportation, where people "can't avoid crowds."

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, the TSA has only once screened 1 million people in a 24-hour period. Over the holiday week they expect two of its busiest days to top that number. 

In addition to masks, LaPook said face shields and washing hands consistently is highly encouraged.

CDC urges against traveling for holidays 03:46

Despite a rise in airport travel expected over the holiday week, many Americans' traditional mode of Thanksgiving transport may prove to be safer — driving.

"If you hop into a car, and you're in the car with people in your own pod, your protective bubble who you know have not been outside it, then you can go from point A to point B safely," LaPook said.

However, those traveling by car should still be aware they can still pose a risk to others, given the virus' incubation period.

"The incubation period is two to 14 days… remember, if I get infected today, I will not become infectious, able to infect somebody else, for two to 14 days," LaPook said. "So I could get tested every day… and be negative, then suddenly, five or six days after I'm infected, become infectious."

In addition to being mindful of the coronavirus' incubation period, the CDC recommends travelers get a flu shot before leaving for their destination — many symptoms such as cough and fever overlap between the viruses.

The CDC also says travelers should be aware of the COVID-19 transmission levels of their destination, and for those hosting loved ones, to be aware of the status of where their guests are traveling from. California, Texas and Illinois are some of the states seeing a recent surge in cases and hospitalizations, and much of the middle of the country is experiencing rampant spread of the virus. In comparison, New York, despite climbing cases, is just over a 3% positivity rate.

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"Of course, anybody who is feeling even a little bit sick should stay home and not risk infecting others, but a big problem has been that many people with Covid are infectious but have no symptoms," LaPook said. "That's one reason why wearing a mask is so important; you can feel fine and be infecting other people without knowing it."

Both those hosting loved ones and those traveling to see them should be aware of local coronavirus safety guidelines, which can vary widely by state and city. Many states have announced new rules in recent days.

In New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, private indoor gatherings are limited to a maximum 10 people, while in California, no more than three households can attend a gathering. Georgia, by contrast, allows gatherings of up to 50 people provided those people can maintain a 6-foot distance. Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma have no statewide private indoor gathering limits. 

LaPook also warned holiday travelers not to hold a "false sense of security" once they have arrived at their destination, and to stick to masks and other safety guidelines. 

"The… major misconception is that if I'm indoors, and I'm greater than 6 feet away, I don't have to wear mask," he said. "That's really not true. Because if the person is infectious, the virus can accumulate over time in a room much farther than 6 feet away, especially if there's poor ventilation."

The CDC also recommends hosts keep adequate air ventilation a priority.

"The safest thing is to be outdoors at a distance apart from each other, but then again, nothing is perfect," LaPook said.

If people are unable stay outdoors, the CDC urges hosts to keep windows or doors open for continuous fresh airflow. 

Sharing large plates of food has also been discouraged by health officials, and if guests cannot bring their own meals then single-use items such as sauce packets and plastic dinnerware are better for minimizing transmission risk.

"Right now we're going back to the fundamentals," LaPook said. "It's time to double down on the fundamentals that we've been talking about the whole time: Wear a mask, wash your hands, physical distancing, avoid crowds, outdoors is safer than indoors."

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