Since the start of the coronavirus, there has been a big question mark on whether or not it’s safe to travel. Airlines and airports have implemented new safety measures for passengers, but it’s still not a “low risk activity,” especially given the rising number of cases in the US, infectious disease expert Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett tells Romper in an email. This is particularly true for younger kids. “The exposure risk in airports is primarily related to the large volume of passengers from various locations congregating in an enclosed space,” explains Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious diseases specialist in New York. “Add to that picture a child who may or may not keep their mask on at all times, and who won’t think twice about touching a potentially contaminated surface, and you have the makings of a potential exposure.”
Knowing this, one of the best ways to mitigate risk is to get your little one, and yourself, prepared to follow extra safety measures outlined below before travel day. Yes, that may mean making many pretend airplane trips in advance.
This means passengers may be expected to wear a mask from the time they walk into the airport at the departure location to the time they walk out of the airport at their destination. Even if it’s a quick direct flight, that’s a long time to wear a mask, so try to find a comfortable option.
“Mask ‘breaks’ should be planned into the day, when kids can remove their masks in a safer area, away from others in the airport,” says Dr. Kesh. Face shields are an option if your young child just isn’t having it, says Dr. Sickbert-Bennett, but you should find out what your airline’s policy is on this.
To prevent masks from getting lost, consider investing in mask lanyards for the whole family. And to be safe, pack a backup mask (or two).
2. Personal Hygiene
When it comes to personal hygiene, err on the side of overly cautious. “Hand hygiene should be practiced habitually before and after eating, after using the restroom and anytime before touching your nose, mouth or eyes,” says Dr. Sickbert-Bennett.
Prior to traveling, let your kids know that anything (especially door handles, bannisters, and elevator buttons) can be dirty, says Dr. Kesh. And during travel, “have regular hand hygiene ‘check-ins’ with your child,” she advises.
As for hand sanitizer, currently the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is allowing each passenger to pass through security with one 12 ounce bottle of hand sanitizer in their carry-on bag. Some airlines, including Delta and American Airlines, are providing passengers with care kits, which include hand sanitizing gels or wipes.
“Surface transmission is probably a less common route of disease spread,” says Dr. Kesh. “It’s far more likely for your child to be exposed if she has close contact with an infected individual, and neither person is wearing a mask.”
That being said, the coronavirus does live on surfaces for a period of time. “It’s a good idea to wipe down the tray and other hard surfaces once you are seated in the aircraft [since] these are surfaces you and your child will touch repeatedly over the course of the flight,” says Dr. Kesh. “Airlines should be taking additional measures to disinfect the plane between flights including all high touch surfaces,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett notes. Many have implemented stricter cleaning protocols, including using electrostatic sprayers between flights, but you’ll want to do your research before booking your ticket to ensure the company you choose is taking extra steps to help keep you safe.
As for the airport, Dr. Kesh says the focus should be less on cleaning surfaces and more on proper hygiene, but if course it does not hurt to wipe down the things you’re about to come into contact with.
4. Air Filtration
Since the coronavirus spreads primarily through the air, it’s important to take filtration and exposure time into consideration when booking travel. Many planes are equipped with HEPA filters which “which extract more than 99.99% of particles, including viruses,” a Delta spokesperson tells Romper.
As helpful as filtration systems are, flight time is also something to consider. “Theoretically, the risk of exposure would be directly related to the duration of the flight,” explains Dr. Kesh. The longer the flight, the longer you are “sharing air space” with fellow passengers, the more trips to the bathroom, and the higher the potential to touch contaminated surfaces.”
5. Food & Beverages
Currently, many airlines have limited food and beverage service to help minimize risk, and packing food for the air can help you avoid a potentially risky encounter with a flight attendants
If you’re eating in the airport itself, be sure to practice good hygiene before and after your meal by washing hands and wiping down surfaces. Dr. Kesh approves of packing food if possible to avoid standing in crowded lines at the airport.
6. Other Considerations
As disappointing as it sounds, be prepared to reschedule or cancel your trip if necessary. Dr. Sickbert-Bennett stresses the importance of monitoring your and your family’s health prior to traveling to help protect fellow passengers as well. “Be acutely aware and honest of any new signs or symptoms that [you and your family] are experiencing,” she says. And don’t fly if you’re not feeling well.
Keep this advice in mind when you’re booking tickets, too. Opt for a company that offers flexible change options for passengers who fall ill before their flight.
Dr. Sandra Kesh, Deputy Medical Director and Infectious Disease Specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY
Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, MS, CIC, Director of Infection Prevention & Administrative Director of the Carolina Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at UNC Hospitals, Associate Professor of Medicine-Infectious Diseases at the UNC School of Medicine, & Associate Professor of Epidemiology at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .