Despite Pandemic Fatigue, Avoid the Temptation of Travel

Published on March 5, 2021

By Kurt Waltenbaugh

So, this is what it has come to? Eleven months in, and pandemic fatigue is so real that I was forced to write an essay for my family explaining to very disappointed teenagers why #springbreak #travel with their friends during #COVID19 is not permitted. 

As of today, 16.9% of the nation has had its first vaccination shot. At the current pace, we’ll have 50% of the U.S. population with some disease protection by early July. Soon, everyone will have the opportunity to take the vaccine, and we can take to the roads, once again, to go exploring.

But travel now? At the present time, my answer is a firm “no.”

Trust me: I know the benefits of time away. I’m the one who penned Want to Live Longer? Take a Vacation. But leisure travel must take a back seat to more essential needs, such as providing healthcare and keeping schools open.

As someone with privilege (i.e., a continually employed, white male able to work from a home with sufficient space and bandwidth to support the whole family on simultaneous Zoom calls) and as someone surrounded by a bubble of those similarly well off, I notice many friends and neighbors questioning the need to continue to stay home.

We’re eager to break free of these walls, explore warmer climates, and get back to a ‘semi-normal’ life. But I will not travel today. There are overwhelming concerns when it comes to considering leisurely travel. They’re rational and logical and fall into a few important categories: community, regulatory, and ethical.

Travel at This Stage in the Pandemic Impacts the Community

Are our children at risk from travel? Not so much. They are young, free of chronic disease, and healthy. A significant number have been infected once already. Most of the rest would likely experience flu-like symptoms and recover. Mind you, the risk is not zero: One 19-year-old in our circle had the virus in November and still has not recovered his sense or taste or smell. But for those aged 18-29, hospitalization rates are currently 153 per 100,000 people.

Are our families at risk when those traveling return? There is increased risk here, and it varies based on underlying conditions. The returning family members will find it difficult to quarantine from other members of the household. Most will re-enter immediately, raising the risk of transmission to everyone “in their bubble.” Hospitalization rates are currently 596 per 100,000 people (ages 50-64), rising to over 1,300 for those over 65. Elders are particularly impacted, as are those with additional risk factors. Travelers bring more risk into their bubbles, perpetuating the crisis around them for additional weeks and months, representing a bigger concern than many comprehend.

What about the communities around us? Do travelers put them at risk? Absolutely. There is an increased chance of a disease being acquired while on holiday and increased transmission to others both during the travel and when returning to the community. This burden falls heaviest on those who can least afford it. (See “Ethical Concerns” below.)

Regulatory Guidelines and Recommendations Against Traveling During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Let’s start with federal regulations. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rates the United States as “Level 4” (Very High Risk), which translates into the recommendation to “avoid all travel to this destination.” Additional language provides unequivocal clarity: “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

When assessing guidelines at the target destination, we find that each state has a slightly different take. For example, if you would like to visit California, public health experts warn, “Travel increases your risk of getting COVID-19 and infecting others. For this reason, the California Department of Public Health asks that you limit your travel during the pandemic.”

Its travel advisory details the following: “Californians should remain local (not traveling more than 120 miles from their home or other place of residence) and avoid non-essential travel. Travelers from other states or countries entering into California for tourism and recreation are strongly discouraged.” And if residents or others disregard those warnings, recommendations to isolate – indoors, away from all human contact – are clear: “All persons arriving in or returning to California from other states or countries, should self-quarantine for 10 days after arrival…”

Similarly, public health guidance in travelers’ home states remains firmly against travel. Minnesota, for example, has similar guidelines. The Minnesota Department of Health says, “Stay home as much as possible. … Any unnecessary travel is highly discouraged. … Out-of-state travel is highly discouraged.” And should you find yourself traveling away and ultimately returning to the state, travelers should quarantine: “Minnesotans returning after traveling out of state, are asked to stay away from others (quarantine) for 14 days after they arrive in Minnesota.”

Since most among us are unlikely to take the time to isolate and quarantine for 20-30 days in total, including the front and back end of a holiday, travel at this point in the pandemic is unwise.

Both Federal and State guidelines make exceptions for “essential travel.” What falls into this category? Travel considered essential and necessary includes maintaining our critical infrastructure (like water supply or power generation), food distribution, healthcare, safety, and sometimes work and study. Notice that pleasure trips are not on that list.

The final pieces of information I use when evaluating travel are the “risk in your area” resource from The New York Times and hospital/ICU capacity:

  • The NYT charts include several key components. For example, risk level by county shows that both our sample destination (San Diego County, CA) and place of origin (Hennepin County, MN) are considered “Very High Risk.” In that category, indoor activities are dangerous and all non-essential travel is to be avoided, including “events” that gather people into one location.
  • When it comes to hospital and ICU bed availability in these areas, San Diego has >90% of ICU beds occupied, and Hennepin is at 84%. Should things take a turn for the worse, having a free hospital bed is important. Similarly, if you are in another state and consume one of their hospital beds, you are making the pandemic worse for the locals who are relying on that resource.

Ethical Concerns Related to Traveling During a Pandemic

Stop and think for minute: Why are you able to travel at all? If you are considering a trip, my guess is that you are healthy (no underlying chronic disease burden), younger (less likely to personally be impacted by an infection), wealthier (not financial impacted by the massive layoffs of the pandemic-induced recession), and, most likely, white.

Members of the BIPOC community are dying at a rate 300% higher than the white community, and lower income people are dying more often than wealthier people – a 1% rise in inequality translates to a 3% rise in related deaths. (For more information, see “Association of Social and Economic Inequality With Coronavirus Disease 2019 Incidence and Mortality Across US Counties.”) Why is this true? Those poorer and discriminated against find it more difficult to isolate themselves and are more likely to be required to work with the public (work-from-home options don’t exist in many settings). These barriers (social determinants of health) prevent many people from leading long, healthy lives even in non-pandemic times and right now that increased chronic disease burden makes people more susceptible to COVID-19 complications, including hospitalization and death.

So, what examples do our actions set both within the family and externally to others? I go back to five fundamental ethical principles (i.e., “tests”) that our actions would have to meet:

  • Respect autonomy – Individuals may choose a path for themselves, so long as that choice does not negatively impact the lives of others. While travel can be part of autonomy, what’s the cost? (See below.)
  • Non-maleficence – Do no harm to others. A pleasure trip does not meet this test. Raising the risk for others (whether it’s by a small, significant, or measurable amount) is not ethical.
  • Beneficence – Take actions that benefit others, such as actions that actively promote the health and well-being of others. Here, it’s especially important to look out for those with fewer advantages than yourself. A pleasure trip does not meet this test. Why should you require others to be in public to serve you at every step of the journey (transit, food, shelter, entertainment, etc.)?
  • Justice – This asks us to consider fairness in three parts: impartiality, equality, and reciprocity. The equality test is concerning. While much of the country is struggling to stamp out the virus and protect people from further harm, why should some go on a pleasure trip and increase that risk?
  • Fidelity – This component of ethics (faithfulness) includes four parts: loyalty, truthfulness, promise-keeping, and respect – and may not apply to the travel decisions currently on the table.

To reiterate, each of us must evaluate these concerns and make our own conclusions. For my family, the needs of our community, the conscientious desire to support public health guidelines, and overall ethical review, outweighs the personal benefits. Staying home for now is the right decision.

Yes, disease rates are coming down –  not because of the vaccine (yet), but due to our collective vigilance in adhering to guidelines after the holiday season. And we should endeavor to keep it that way in order to give vaccine distribution a chance to work.

I believe that the end is finally in sight. Let’s not jeopardize the hard work of the past 11 months. In time, I hope to see you out there.

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