Europe’s building Covid wave could throw holiday travel into chaos
Yet the coronavirus has remained persistent, scuttling long-awaited plans, straining the travel industry’s workforce and making many summer trips hellish. Now health experts are warning another winter surge could come, with cases already rising in Europe and researchers monitoring new strains of the virus.
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The uptick comes as many Americans traveling abroad will have less protection against the dominant omicron variant as vaccination rates for the new bivalent booster are lagging. By early October, only about 4% of eligible Americans had received the new vaccine.
Here’s what to know if you’re planning on taking a big trip this holiday season.
Where is the coronavirus breaking out in the world?
Signs point to a surge in Europe, which could herald another winter surge in the United States. Cases have increased by 104% in Portugal and 42% in Switzerland over the past week, while the virus has also increased in Germany, France, Italy and Austria, according to the Washington Post coronavirus tracker.
The World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control warned on Wednesday that the continent is likely to enter a new wave of covid, which will coincide with a resurgence of influenza. In the ECDC’s latest weekly report, it noted that “widespread increases have been seen in all indicators”, including cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the continent.
Covid cases are also on the rise 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% increase in the average number of cases reported daily over the past week, the Ministry of Health said on Saturday that an omicron subvariant known as XBB has risen from a 22% share of local cases to 54% over the course of a week.
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When cases spike in Europe, it’s often “just a matter of weeks or months” until a surge occurs in the United States, said Sanjana Ravi, visiting science assistant at the Johns Hopkins Center. for Health Security from the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We saw it with the delta variant. We saw it with the omicron variant,” Ravi said. “I think it’s prudent to take precautions given that we’re starting to see those numbers go up again in Europe now.”
How will the travel industry be affected?
A winter covid surge will likely put even more strain on airports and airlines that have been plagued by labor shortages over the summer.
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has announced that staff shortages will force it to limit the number of passengers it can handle per day until at least March 2023. Dutch carrier KLM said it would have to cut winter ticket sales at Schiphol by up to 22% due to the limits.
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Last winter, US 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, 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 hold its weight…but can break at any time, perhaps with little warning,” said Harteveldt said in an email.
Should I reconsider my travel plans?
For healthy young people who are fully vaccinated, including with the bivalent booster, most travel is safe, said Henry Wu, associate professor of medicine at Emory University and director of the Emory TravelWell Center.
However, the elderly and immunocompromised might consider changing 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 to look for places with milder weather that allow them to eat outside.
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“At the start of the covid pandemic, there were a lot of outbreaks in ski lodges,” Wu said. “We had a lot of people in indoor spaces that probably felt comfortable at the time, but probably had also less than adequate ventilation.”
Ravi recommended postponing all non-essential travel to Europe, especially for those at high risk. If you must travel, she said, test before leaving home, wear an N95 mask for the duration of transit and consider bringing an air filter.
Lin H. Chen, 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 fall ill abroad.
Are covid restrictions likely to return?
Over the past year, most of the world has eased its covid restrictions for travelers, including vaccination, testing and mask mandates. The main European destinations, such as Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, are fully open to tourism.
Mark Fischer, regional medical director at International SOS, a health and safety risk management company, said he does not expect those restrictions to return, even with a winter surge.
“However, I think the focus is on the overall health care burden of the winter respiratory season,” with governments monitoring how covid and flu together affect hospital systems, Fischer said.
Wu said countries dropping restrictions doesn’t mean measures like vaccinations and high-quality mask-wearing aren’t “extremely helpful” for individual travellers.
“I would advise that even travelers who are not affected by serious illness, covid or flu can still make you unhappy during your trip or vacation,” he said.
Chen recommended immunocompromised travelers consider Evusheld, a preventative antibody therapy, before travel to “enhance their protection.”
Do I also need a flu shot?
After coronavirus precautions have largely kept the flu at bay for the past two years, Wu said it’s “quite possible” seasonal flu will make a major comeback this winter. He recommended that all travelers get an annual flu shot before leaving.
“I’ve always told travelers that the vaccine most likely to save your life, pre-covid, is probably the flu shot, because the flu is so common, historically, among travelers,” Wu said.
Ravi said it was easy to get the flu shot and the bivalent shot at the same time at your local pharmacy.
“Just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now doesn’t mean other respiratory viruses aren’t a threat yet,” Ravi said.
What happens if I test positive abroad?
The most important thing travelers can do is build flexibility into their itinerary so they can avoid traveling if they test positive, Wu said.
“When planning your trip, if potentially getting sick and having to stay somewhere an extra four or five days or more is a big deal, then this trip is probably not the best trip to take, or it means travelers really should take these precautions to avoid 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 fall ill while abroad. You should also talk to your doctor before you travel, especially if you think you need antiviral treatment for a pre-existing condition, she said.
Where can I find more information?
The CDC provides guidelines for international travel, which urge travelers to be fully up-to-date on vaccinations, including boosters; wear masks on public transport; and test before departure and after arrival.
The CDC recently ended its country-specific covid-19 travel designations, but is still issuing travel health advisories for countries where travelers would be at extreme risk of contracting the coronavirus. The State Department also issues country-specific travel advisories that consider the risk of covid-19 and other threats.
Travelers can also consult databases such as Sherpa and Kayak for the latest information on coronavirus restrictions in foreign countries.